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The Yom Kippur War: 40 Years Later

The Yom Kippur War ended the Israeli attitude of disrespect towards Arab capabilities.

Mark Twain, ever a source of infinite wisdom, once remarked that "God created war, so that Americans will learn geography" — whereas wars for Israel were about survival, saving the home, and preventing collective extinction.

At least three of Israel’s wars clearly fall into this category: the War of Independence, 1948-9; the 1967 war; and the Yom Kippur War of 1973. Of these three, the first still should be conceived as the most important of all, as without a victory then, there would be no Israel. The 1967 war was the one in which Israel’s continuing existence in the Middle East, an unfriendly region, became an unalterable fact of life, while 1973 reconfirmed and perpetuated this important fact.

This is not to take anything away from the enormity of the war in 1973, its cruelty, and its large number of Israeli casualties. Rather, it is to put the conflict in the right historic context: that of a war which was definitely a catalyst for changes — big and enduring changes, both in Israel, as well as in the rest of the Middle East.

The following is not intended to be a comprehensive retrospective analysis of the war with all its multi-dimensional repercussions, but rather some reflections on Israel in the aftermath of the war.

Israel After the War: The Domestic Political Scene

In the dunes of Sinai and on top of the Golan Mountains, the Labor Party, the party which established Israel and that was in complete dominance of Zionist and Israeli politics for decades, finally lost its legitimacy; the road for the historic victory of Menachem Begin and the Likud Party in 1977 was thus wide open. The soldiers and their families at home finally decided that Israel needed a change of government. They did it.

Likud had 26 seats in the 1969 elections, skyrocketed to 39 in December 1973 — right after the war — and then had another little push in 1977 with 45 seat. Since then, Likud replaced Labor as the dominant political force in Israel. The 1973 war as a sizeable catalyst for change.

Sure, demographic and cultural changes in Israel can be mobilized to explain the change, and it is correct to assume that a change would have occurred at some point in time. However, change came as a direct result of the war. Labor-dominated and Likud-dominated Israel are not the same. Israel’s political history, therefore, can be definitely divided into two distinct periods: before and after the 1973 war.

Many long-held Israeli convictions were shuttered in the aftermath of the conflict, but not the Israeli public love affair with the Israel Defense Forces, the venerated IDF. This institution, alongside the Supreme Court, continues to be the recipient of spontaneous public adulation, despite the less than perfect performance in the battlefield, and the obvious, inexcusable intelligence failings.

This is so, because the army continues to be a reflection of Israeli society at large, though less than in the past. It is so, because the IDF fought bravely and, in the end, brought the politicians to a point where they could negotiate respectable ceasefire agreements, and later, in the case of Egypt, a peace treaty.

In fact, the IDF won the battle, despite the initial failures of the 1973 war. If the results of the war had been different, today, there would have been a totally different Israel and the wider Middle East.

So, we deal here with two important elements: one is about the role of images and perceptions; and the other concerns the Israeli sense that, despite all that has transpired in the Middle East in the last four decades, the IDF continues to be the rock solid guarantor of Israel’s survival, amid a sea of hostility and instability.

Israelis and Arabs: Perceptions and Realities

Perhaps irreversibly, the war ended the deeply-entrenched Israeli attitude of disrespect towards Arab abilities and capabilities. No more was the sense prevailing after the brilliant and easy victory of 1967 about Arabs being losers — and even pathetic at that.

Both the military performance of the Egyptians and Syrians, as well as the unbelievably sophisticated disinformation campaign preceding the war, took their toll. Israelis, regardless of their political stripes, came to realize that they didn't have the monopoly over military efficiency, intelligence gathering, and political acumen.

Definitely through the shock of war, particularly its initial stages, the Israelis came to appreciate their position in the Middle East in much more realistic terms. A similar process should have taken place in the Arab world and, to an extent, this was the case — surely in Egypt, where President Anwar el-Sadat and parts of the elite, whether military or civilian, started a soul-searching process, culminating with the historic peace initiative.

This was not a process engulfing the Egyptian masses, while the Israeli people showed through elections its support for the clever decision of Prime Minister Begin to depart from his past political history, and reciprocate generously to Sadat’s peace proposals. In fact, the entire initiative was a combined Israeli-Egyptian one.

What made the initiative so significant were also the developments in the Middle East in general, which are beyond the scope of this article. Let us just remind ourselves of such not-so-minute events, like the Lebanese Civil War, the Iranian Revolution, and the cataclysmic event of the Iran-Iraq War.

Whereas in the aftermath of the 1973 war, the Arabs, using so cleverly and brutally the oil weapon, seemed on top of the world, some years later, Fouad Ajami wrote his seminal piece on the end of pan-Arabism.

Israel and the US

What made peace with Egypt possible was also the global situation, particularly the role of the United States. The Americans knew how to maneuver the situation, which perhaps for the first and last time in recent memory, the US simultaneously gained Israeli and Egyptian trust.

Here is a lesson to those dealing with Middle East diplomacy: talk to all sides; do it by using effective leverage; but never be seen as if by doing it, you abandon your hitherto ally, in order to have a new one. Not a bad lesson considering the upcoming American-Iranian negotiations, and altogether, not a bad lesson to Israeli public opinion.

Jews can trust others, not blindly, not always, but sometimes — it is not a zero sum game of all or nothing. 

Concluding Personal Reflections

I was in the battle fields of the Golan Heights as a young reservist. I know what a war is, and so do so many other Israelis. I also know something about the Jewish historic experience. When put together, the greatest lesson of the 1973 war is that it is better to win conflicts than to lose them; but by far, it is best to try and prevent them in the first place.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.

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