Israel still atoning for mistakes from Yom Kippur War

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As Israel commemorated the 40th anniversary of the Yom Kippur War last month (on its Hebrew date), Israelis once again relived the most traumatic of Israel’s wars since the 1948 War of Independence.

On Yom Kippur 1973, with the surprise attack on two fronts, we glimpsed our own mortality. Mere hundreds of Israeli soldiers defended the line as tens of thousands of Egyptian soldiers poured across the Suez Canal; barely a hundred tanks stood between the Egyptian army and Tel Aviv. On the Golan Heights, the Syrian army nearly broke through to the Galilee.

As soon as the war ended, Israelis began vehemently arguing about what had caused it. How could we have been so unprepared? How did we ignore the intelligence warnings, the obvious signs of a military buildup along the Suez Canal? Why were army storerooms so understocked?

Religious Israelis wondered about the meaning of a war on the holiest day of the Jewish year. But secular Jews, too, spoke in a kind of theological language about the “sins” of Israeli society.

After Yom Kippur 1973, we launched a decades-long internal war of atonement. The Israel that we know today was largely born in the aftermath of the Yom Kippur War.

Though West Bank settlements were built immediately after the Six-Day War in 1967, they were few and sparsely populated. The settlement movement as an organized force began only after 1973. The decline of the prestige of the governing Labor Party emboldened a new generation of religious Zionists to defy the government and attempt to redraw the borders of the state.

For its part, the peace movement began to organize in earnest only after Egypt’s president, Anwar Sadat, came to Israel in 1977 — itself a consequence of the Yom Kippur War. Peace activists blamed the Israeli government of the Yom Kippur era for ignoring offers by Sadat to negotiate before he launched his war. They recalled the euphoria among Israelis that followed the Six-Day War, the sense of Israeli invincibility, the contempt for Arab capabilities. They recalled how Defense Minister Moshe Dayan dismissively said of Arab leaders that he was waiting for their phone call to discuss peace. The Yom Kippur War, left-wingers insisted, could have been prevented had Israel been responsive to Sadat’s overtures. For the first time, significant numbers of Israelis now saw Israel as at least partly, if not largely, responsible for the absence of peace.

For left-wing Israelis, then, the sin of Yom Kippur 1973 was arrogance, an excessive reliance on power. The conclusion was: We must be open to peace and not rely only on power.

Israeli soldiers rest during a lull in the fighting during Yom Kippur War in 1973. photo/courtesy of yad tabenkin

For right-wing Israelis, though, the sin of Yom Kippur was complacency, allowing ourselves to believe that the Jewish people no longer faced an existential threat. The conclusion was: We must remain alert, never lower our guard.

Each camp created its own historical narrative to vindicate its post–Yom Kippur conclusions. The left-wing narrative traces an arc that begins with Sadat’s unrequited overtures before the war to his 1977 visit to Israel, which confirmed the possibility of peace. But then Israel reverted to its old ways, invading Lebanon in 1982 and massively building settlements in the territories, which led to the first intifada of the late 1980s. Both Lebanon and the intifada, argued the left, confirmed the futility of reliance on power alone.

The right-wing narrative of Israeli history contrasts the victory of 1967, when the Israeli people were united, with the gloom and divisiveness of post-1973 Israel. A desperation for peace resulted in the self-destructive delusion of peace with Yasser Arafat, which exploded in our faces during the second intifada of the early 2000s. Finally the defeatist mindset of Yom Kippur led to the unilateral withdrawal from Gaza in 2005. The thousands of rockets that fell on Israeli towns and kibbutzim since then have proved the futility of concessions and weakness.

The result of the vehement argument between left and right over the lessons of the Yom Kippur War is that a majority of Israelis became centrists.

The lesson for the Jewish people on the 40th anniversary of the Yom Kippur War is humility. No Jewish group — political or cultural — has all the answers. Each camp has grasped something true, essential, about our predicament; each speaks for a legitimate Jewish value. A healthy people knows how to listen to its own competing voices and sift for insights no matter what their ideological source.

The maturation of Israeli society didn’t happen, though, through dialogue and deep listening, but because events forced us to face reality. The first intifada convinced a majority of Israelis of the need to free ourselves from the occupation; the second intifada convinced that same majority of the need to free ourselves from wishful thinking about peace.

Perhaps the most enduring lesson of the Yom Kippur War, then, is the need to lower our guard against each other and listen to competing insights. As we face a year of acute uncertainty, that lesson is especially vital now.



Yossi Klein Halevi is a senior fellow of the Shalom Hartman Institute and the author of  “Like Dreamers: The Story of the Israeli Paratroopers Who Reunited Jerusalem and Divided a Nation.”