Coronavirus, Yom Kippur War: Israel's similar responses - opinion

Just as in Yom Kippur of 1973, Israelis feel abandoned by their leaders, exposed to the ravages of an enemy they cannot defeat alone and fending for themselves.

MEN CELEBRATE Purim in Jerusalem’s Mea She’arim neighborhood on Sunday. (photo credit: YONATAN SINDEL/FLASH 90)
MEN CELEBRATE Purim in Jerusalem’s Mea She’arim neighborhood on Sunday.
(photo credit: YONATAN SINDEL/FLASH 90)
 Over the past few weeks, Israel’s media have obtained and made public significant portions of Israeli cabinet debates about the COVID-19 crisis and how to respond. The recordings bear more than a slight resemblance to chilling recorded sessions of the cabinet made almost 50 years earlier, during the Yom Kippur War. Just as in that costly and disastrous conflict – a conflict which Israel could have anticipated and prepared for but chose not to do so – COVID-19 has exposed both the salient strengths as well as the vulnerabilities and weaknesses in Israeli society and government.
During the 1973 war, Israel was saved by the ability of frontline units – undermanned and under-resourced – to hold the line despite being in many cases surrounded by enemy forces and cut off from any outside help. Small units were able to improvise and delay the advance of much larger Syrian and Egyptian forces despite a casualty rate that in many cases saw 75 percent of frontline unit officers killed or injured. This ethos of improvisation – literally “making it up as it happened,” combined with the fact that units had trained together and in many cases were composed of soldiers who were friends and neighbors in civilian life literally saved the country. The enemy advance was delayed for a crucial 72-hour period during which the larger IDF reserve forces could be mobilized and brought into action.
The recordings from Israel’s high command show how poorly it was prepared for the conflict, how misinformed generals often were about the facts on the ground and how depleted frontline units were left to fend for themselves. The commander of Israel’s 188th Armored Brigade Colonel Yitzhak Ben Shoham – isolated with only a dozen or so remaining tanks on the Golan Heights and facing thousands of Syrian armored vehicles – resorted to a desperate radio message to his soldiers: “Jews, fight for your survival,” before he was killed in his tank by Syrian machine-gun fire.
Israel’s loss of almost 3,000 combatants in 1973 left the country shocked and dismayed, coming as it did only six years after the lightning quick victory in the Six Day War. In the aftermath of Yom Kippur, there were mass protests by reservists leading to a formal commission of inquiry and ultimately the fall of the Labor-led government.
Israel’s response to the pandemic bears more than a slight resemblance to what happened in Yom Kippur. Israel is an island nation, connected to the world via a thin umbilical cord running through its only international airport. Israel’s population is moreover accustomed to emergencies and collective action, and this was evident in the public response to the first lockdown during the spring of 2020. Israelis held virtual Passover Seders via Zoom, exercised extreme measures to curtail infections and generally were disciplined and followed government regulations.
Notably different was the response of Israel’s large ultra-Orthodox (haredi) community, which generally sees the state as an economic benefactor but answers to a higher authority. The haredim in many cases flouted regulations, and continued to pray indoors and hold mass events such as weddings during which many attendees were unmasked and in close proximity.
Not surprisingly the haredi infection rates have (for most of the pandemic) been far in excess of the rest of Israeli society and in some communities approached 40 percent of those tested. Moreover, although Israel’s Ben-Gurion Airport was nominally closed to flights (on and off) for parts of the past year, the Netanyahu government – which views haredi MKs as critical to maintaining its grip on power – was woefully lax in enforcing the quarantine and travel regulations on haredi communities.
ISRAEL THANKFULLY possesses some potent weapons in its pandemic battle. Israel’s citizens are still largely able and willing to rally around common objectives particularly during times of crisis. Most Israelis served in the IDF and are accustomed to the idea of collective responsibility. Israel’s government is relatively centralized and technically able to move rapidly, a key enabling factor in the country’s successful drive to obtain and deploy more vaccines per capita than any country on earth in record time.
Israel’s hospitals, though overcrowded and underfunded remain largely excellent and are staffed by highly trained and motivated medical professionals. (It is noteworthy that Israeli Arabs are far overrepresented in the professional medical cadre.) And Israel’s four large HMO’s are collectively able to deliver care to literally every citizen within or close to their community and are able to collect and analyze epidemiological data rapidly and effectively. Most critically, Israelis remain highly creative and able to improvise effectively, a key element in the creation of the country’s enviable “Start-up Nation” ethos which has led to so many successful technology companies.
The failures of Israel in dealing with the pandemic – as in most countries – have been largely political. The government – a transitory “coalition of the unwilling” after three elections in less than two years, and held hostage to the political whims of a prime minister bent on retaining power and delaying or canceling his ongoing trial on corruption charges at almost all cost – has been feckless and ineffective. Israelis have watched with dismay as law enforcement officers have failed to control haredi gatherings ; as Ben-Gurion Airport has been ostensibly closed (other than emergency cases) but de facto has allowed large numbers of haredi travelers to enter and exit the country; as the cabinet – after endless debates about closures and openings – has opened fitness gyms but left hundreds of thousands of schoolchildren still taking virtual classes.
Most alarming has been the corrosive impact of the government’s pandemic response on the moral and ethical underpinnings of citizenry. A young CEO of a hi-tech company told me he fears the long-term impact on society of an emerging ethos which enables and even celebrates lies and half-truths as a way of surviving this difficult period. Instead of trusting those authorities vested with protecting citizens from a pandemic, Israelis – determined not to be what is referred to in popular parlance as “friers” (suckers) – are reduced to concealing activities and evading or ignoring regulations.
Just as in Yom Kippur of 1973, Israelis feel abandoned by their leaders, exposed to the ravages of an enemy they cannot defeat alone and fending for themselves. In the aftermath of COVID-19 and once Israel’s citizenry emerges from the “pandemic bunker,” it will be essential to examine in a dispassionate and honest way what went wrong and what should be changed so that Israel does not have yet a third Yom Kippur War in its future.
The writer is a venture investor and founder of the Shlomo Argov leadership program.