The “Conception” Crashes
You promised . . . peace . . . [and] you promised to keep your promises.
—From the Israeli song “Winter ’73”
In the spring of 1973, when Yitzhak Rabin returned to Israel after a five-year stint in Washington as Israel’s ambassador to the United States, he sensed that he had come back to a country transformed. “The Israel I came home to had a self-confident, almost smug aura to it,” he said, “as befits a country far removed from the possibility of war.”1
If the weeks prior to the Six-Day War had been a time of unprecedented self-doubt and pervasive despair, the years following the war heralded a period of great confidence. Israel, it seemed, had moved beyond the threat of destruction; the Diaspora-like nervousness of Israel’s earlier generations now appeared a vestige of the Jewish past.
Later, Israelis would refer to the new national mind-set—a worldview that was especially deeply rooted in the military’s top brass and Israel’s intelligence community—as the conceptzia, the “conception.” Rank-and-file Israelis as well as their leaders had complete faith in the IDF’s military superiority. Certain that it would take years for Egypt to recover the military might that the Jewish state had summarily destroyed in six lightning days, they assumed that Syria also knew better than to attack Israel’s northern border. Thanks to the IDF, they asserted, Israel was now invulnerable.
Israeli life had changed in numerous ways. If in the early years of the state military leaders spoke of their accomplishments with a sense of humility—the pervasive culture insisted that they were merely “doing their duty to serve the nation”—Israel now venerated IDF generals and treated them as heroes. Some of those generals then parlayed their newfound popularity to move into politics, eroding what had been Ben-Gurion’s policy of insisting upon a clear divide between the military and the political sphere. David Ben-Gurion, Moshe Sharett, and Levi Eshkol, the three men who had served as prime minister from 1948 through the Six-Day War, had virtually no military experience to speak of. In the years to follow, however, many of Israel’s prime ministers would be former generals or highly decorated soldiers.
The near asceticism of Zionist leaders like Ben-Gurion, A. D. Gordon, or Golda Meir also disappeared. Israel’s early leaders had eschewed physical comforts, and even when they reached the peak of the political ladder, they lived in small, plain apartments with astonishingly few comforts. That, too, was gone. Israeli leaders began to permit themselves to live well—very well, indeed.
Yitzhak Rabin was right. Israel had changed.
With this new mind-set, Israel staged the largest military parade in its history on Independence Day in the spring of 1973. It would also be the last.
DESPITE ISRAELIS’ BRAVADO and sense of invincibility, though, Israel was still not at peace. Along the Sinai in particular, Israeli and Egyptian forces remained “eyeball to eyeball”2—both sides clearly visible to the other, with nothing but the narrow canal between them. Israel began construction of defensive positions along the canal named the Bar-Lev Line (for General Chaim Bar-Lev, the IDF’s chief of staff). Though no one thought it would successfully block a full-scale Egyptian invasion, its proponents believed it would be an effective early-warning system should Egypt ever attack, and if necessary, would hold off the Egyptians long enough for additional forces to arrive.
From the outset, though, Israeli military officials disagreed about the likely efficacy of the Bar-Lev Line. Ariel Sharon, then head of Southern Command, believed that the Bar-Lev Line was dangerous because it invited an unjustified sense of security. “I knew with absolute certainty that I was right and they [generals and former chiefs of staff] were wrong,” he later said with his characteristic self-assuredness. “[T]he Bar-Lev Line was bound to bring us disaster. But it was no pleasure when four years later it did exactly that.”3 But most of the brass were not terribly worried, and the construction continued. For some, the Bar-Lev Line became the symbol of Israel’s impregnability on the southern border.
While Israel was building defensive fortifications, Egyptian president Nasser assumed a more aggressive posture. Determined to force Israel to leave the Sinai Peninsula that it had captured in the Six-Day War, Nasser unleashed limited artillery barrages and small incursions into the Sinai. When they proved ineffective, Egypt began another offensive on March 8, 1969, which became known as the War of Attrition.
The War of Attrition, often omitted from the lists of Israel’s armed conflicts, lasted from March 1969 until August 1970. When a cease-fire eventually went into effect, the border had not moved an inch, but the toll for both sides had been significant. Though scholars disagree about the precise numbers, one Israeli military historian suggests that 921 Israelis died; 694 of them were soldiers and the rest civilians. Israel lost about two dozen aircraft in the dozens of battles that constituted the war, in addition to a navy destroyer.
As had been the case in all the previous wars, though, Arab casualties were much higher. Benny Morris believes that Egyptian losses approximated ten thousand soldiers and civilians killed; at certain points during the war, the Egyptians were losing some three hundred soldiers a day.4 The Egyptians lost about a hundred aircraft and several naval vessels. In a loss that was surely symbolic as well as tangible for Egypt, the Egyptian chief of staff lay among the dead.
IN APRIL 1970, EGYPTIAN PRESIDENT Nasser invited Nachum Goldmann, president of the World Zionist Congress (the body responsible for the Zionist Congresses since Herzl had convened the first congress in Basel in 1897), to travel to Cairo to discuss a possible resolution to the conflict. Prime Minister Golda Meir, believing it was a trap, pressured Goldmann not to go.5 Some Israelis began to wonder aloud if Israel was really doing enough to exit the cycle of violence. In a step that then struck many as an unpardonable violation of Israel’s collectivist ethos, fifty-eight high school students sent a letter to Meir on April 28, 1970. They wrote, “We and many others are therefore wondering how we can fight in a permanent, futureless war, while our government’s policy is such that it misses chances for peace.”6 Public unrest regarding Golda Meir had begun.
It was a simple letter—still known as the “Twelfth-Graders’ Letter”—but it shook the nation. The letter was one of the first indications of cracks in the facade of Israel’s collective ethos (one dimension of Ben-Gurion’s larger mamlachtiyut project). No less important, Israel had the beginnings of a peace movement; a tradition of Israeli civilians questioning the sincerity and motives of their government’s foreign policy had been born.
Several months later, Egypt’s president died of a heart attack. Gamal Abdel Nasser succumbed knowing his life’s central cause had failed. He had not delivered on his promise to push Israel into the sea and his grand vision, the pan-Arab movement, was losing steam. His death was in many ways the final nail in the coffin of the Egyptian-led pan-Arab movement.
IF PAN-ARABISM WAS DYING, however, Palestinian nationalism was awakening. Ever since Israel’s independence and the Palestinian Nakba (“Catastrophe”) that had unfolded during the War of Independence, Arab countries had continuously said that the Palestinian cause would be one of the central foci of the pan-Arab movement. Yet nothing had materialized. Arab states’ devotion to the Palestinian cause, Palestinian activists began to realize, was nothing but rhetoric. The Palestinians came to realize that if they were to make any progress, and particularly if they were to reverse the territorial losses of the 1967 war, they would have to do it themselves.
The man who took up the cause most effectively was Yasser Arafat. He managed to get Palestinian national aspirations onto the world’s agenda, but to do so, he fashioned a tradition of Palestinian violence worldwide. Ultimately, Arafat unleashed a campaign of terror not only against Israeli civilians, but against targets in Europe and beyond as well.
The campaign of terror began in earnest in the mid-1960s. In early 1965, Fatah gunmen began crossing the Israeli border to execute more deadly raids. In May 1965, as their attacks intensified, they fired at a farm truck, a chemical tanker, and residents of a kibbutz, injuring several. Between June 1967 and March 1971, attacks continued relentlessly, with numerous Israeli dead and wounded.
From the outset, Arafat was explicit in his assertion that even Israel’s returning to the pre-June 1967 borders would not be sufficient. The Palestinians had a much more ambitious—and deadly—goal in mind. “We are not concerned with what took place in June 1967 or with eliminating the consequences of the June war,” Arafat said in August 1970. “The Palestinian revolution’s basic concern is the uprooting of the Zionist entity from our land and liberating it.”
Palestinian terror took the revolution overseas as well, hijacking numerous planes. On February 21, 1970, forty-seven passengers and crew members were killed in Zurich when a Swissair plane was sabotaged; seventeen of the victims were Israeli. That same day, seven elderly Jews were killed in a Palestinian attack on a home for the aged in Munich.
Though Arafat quickly became an internationally reviled figure, his campaign succeeded. Palestinian nationalism was an international concern, and eventually, it would put Israel on the diplomatic defensive.
IRONICALLY, IT WAS THE Arab world that first struck back at Arafat. By 1970, the Kingdom of Jordan, to which many of the hundreds of thousands of Palestinians fled during the War of Independence and later during the Six-Day War, was becoming an important base of operations for Arafat’s radical and deadly Palestine Liberation Organization. Soon though, the PLO overreached and set its sights on Jordan’s Hashemite monarchy. King Hussein survived two assassination attempts by PLO militants in merely three months. Further PLO attacks on Jordanian soil, designed to overthrow the Hashemite dynasty, included the hijacking of three airliners to Jordan and their subsequent televised destruction.
With his monarchy at stake, King Hussein responded with a brutal crackdown now known as “Black September.” What he unleashed was actually a civil war, fought between PLO terrorist organizations and the Jordanian armed forces, which began in September 1970 and lasted for ten months, until July 1971. The war left some two thousand PLO fighters dead; thousands of Palestinian noncombatants also lost their lives. Jordan was in such turmoil that Syria saw an opportunity to invade Jordan—claiming that its goal was to prevent the annihilation of the Palestinians. Only when Israel concentrated tanks on the Golan Heights, within striking distance of Damascus, did the Syrians stand down.
Though Hussein managed to save his kingdom, he unwittingly brought about the destruction of another Middle Eastern country. The PLO leadership and thousands of its fighters, expelled from Jordan, fled to southern Lebanon. By 1975, civil unrest had broken out in Lebanon—which had long had a precarious and tense agreement between Muslims and Christians—and all-out civil war would follow. The “Paris of the Middle East” would eventually lie in rubble, and largely because of Arafat, Lebanon’s days as a functioning country were numbered.
WITH THE COLD WAR raging, the United States and the USSR both saw the Middle East, and Egypt in particular, as a critical place to establish their influence. The Soviet Union took Egypt and Anwar Sadat—who had twice served as Egyptian vice president under Nasser and succeeded him as president when Nasser died—under its wing. But Sadat resented what he saw as Soviet meddling in internal Egyptian affairs and ordered Soviet advisers out of Egypt.
Israel and the United States were convinced that Sadat had made a significant strategic blunder by giving up such an important ally, but the Egyptian leader was much cleverer than they believed. Sadat knew that the Soviets were worried that Egypt would launch another war against Israel. If Egypt lost again, it would cast the Soviets, who were assisting Egypt, in a bad light. The Soviets, however annoyed they might have been with Sadat, could not afford to let him lose.
The Soviets “punished” Egypt by strengthening the Syrians. They provided them with hundreds of tanks, planes, and SAMs (surface-to-air missiles). Almost overnight, Syria became the most heavily armed Arab nation, per capita, in the world. Given that the Syrian Baath regime remained committed to the “liquidation of all traces of Zionist aggression,”7 this was an ominous development for Israel. The Soviets also knew that they could not abandon Egypt. Despite their frustration with Sadat, they provided him with jet fighters, tanks, anti-tank missiles, SAMs, and Scuds that could threaten Israel’s major cities.
Sadat got precisely what he wanted. Suddenly, the Middle Eastern balance of power was not nearly as disproportionate as many Israelis wished to believe. With most Israelis unaware of how quickly the region was shifting, the conceptzia was becoming a profound liability.
SADAT WAS DETERMINED TO restore Egypt’s pride. By March 1973, Sadat and Syrian president Hafez al-Assad reached a general agreement to launch a joint offensive against Israel. They left many of the details unplanned, largely because the two nations had different objectives in mind. Syria still hoped to destroy Israel, but Sadat was willing to settle for a restoration of Egyptian dignity by undoing some of the humiliation of the 1967 defeat. If his forces could establish a beachhead on the east bank of the Suez Canal and overrun the Israeli defenses and the symbolic Bar-Lev Line, the campaign would be a success. To ensure that Israel’s air power would have limited impact, the plan was to stay within the twelve-kilometer range of safety afforded by the SAMs that the Soviets had provided him.
Even while he was planning for war, Sadat may have been pursuing an alternate, parallel track, as well. In early 1971, Sadat made overtures to Israel suggesting that Israel and Egypt could come to an interim agreement if Israel withdrew to a distance of forty kilometers from the Suez Canal. Golda Meir, utterly confident in Israel’s security and dubious that Sadat had any serious intent of making peace, rejected the suggestion out of hand.8
In late 1972 and unbeknownst to most Israelis, Sadat appointed Hafez Ismail, a longtime diplomat, to the position of national security adviser. He instructed Ismail to conduct secret negotiations with U.S. President Richard Nixon’s National Security Advisor, Henry Kissinger. The purpose was to make clear that Egypt would be willing to end its conflict and establish normal relations with Israel if Israel were willing to withdraw from the territories it had captured from Egypt in 1967.
Kissinger and Ismail met twice in 1973,9 but this Egyptian proposal, too, went nowhere. Why that is the case remains unclear. According to some scholars, Ismail was “forthcoming . . . in seeking a settlement with Israel, one in which territory would be returned and normalized relations established.”10 Or had Sadat decided to go to war to restore Egyptian pride no matter what, making Ismail’s efforts a diversionary tactic only?11 Whatever the reason, the proposal never received serious attention.
Some on the Israeli side floated proposals as well. Israeli defense minister Moshe Dayan was willing to explore an economic arrangement with the Egyptians. He was confident that if Israel withdrew from the banks of the Suez and the Egyptians began to allow Israel to use the canal for shipping, the two countries might be able to avoid war.12 Neither the Israeli government nor the Egyptians were very interested in Dayan’s proposal, however, and eventually, it, too, was shelved. No one seemed terribly worried about avoiding a war they were confident the Egyptians knew better than to start.
IN THE SPRING AND summer of 1973, Egyptian forces began military exercises along Israel’s southern border. The Israeli high command—in the grips of the conceptzia—assumed that these were routine exercises. Yet they were nothing of the sort. Preparing to cross the Suez Canal, the Egyptians were trying to desensitize the IDF to Egyptian activity across the border. As time went on, Israeli intelligence gathered additional evidence that the Egyptians were planning an attack, but the high command misread all the information. So pervasive was the conceptzia—Israel’s sense of invulnerability and the IDF’s disparaging attitude to the Egyptian armed forces—that those in charge of the IDF either dismissed the mere notion that Egypt would attack or assumed that Israel’s superior intelligence could give them ample warning so they could repel anything thrown at them.
In May, after Egypt put its military on high alert, David “Dado” Elazar, the IDF chief of staff, ordered a partial mobilization of the IDF, but at a huge financial cost. When the Egyptians called off their alert, many on Israel’s side believed that Dado had overreacted—Israeli generals would be hesitant to mobilize too early the next time around.
Toward the end of September, King Hussein made a secret visit to Jerusalem, where he met with Prime Minister Meir. He told her that Egypt and Syria were planning to attack Israel.13 The meeting left Golda shaking, but her senior command reassured her. Again, Israel did nothing.
At the beginning of October, the Israeli intelligence community received further information from a senior Mossad agent, Ashraf Marwan, who was both Egyptian president Nasser’s son-in-law and an Israeli spy. Marwan warned the Israelis that Egypt was planning an attack, which it would disguise as a military drill. This information never made its way to the prime minister’s office.14
In Israel’s Southern Command, Lieutenant Benjamin Siman Tov submitted a document on October 1 to his officer, Lieutenant Colonel David Gedaliah, stating that the Egyptian deployment on the western side of the canal was indicative not of military exercises, but of preparation for war. Two days later he submitted a second report insisting that there was a high likelihood that the Egyptians were preparing for a major conflict. Gedaliah did not distribute these reports, nor did he include them in the Southern Command intelligence report to General Headquarters. Siman Tov’s reports received no attention whatsoever.
On October 4 and 5, Soviet advisers departed Egypt and Syria, along with their families. This, too, Israeli HQ ignored. On those same days, aerial photographs of Egypt and Syria indicated an unprecedentedly high number of tanks, infantry units, and SAMs. Still, Israel did not react. At twelve thirty A.M. on October 5, the Mossad headquarters in Tel Aviv received a cable that was marked as urgent. The cable, from Marwan again, stated that war was imminent. He insisted that he speak to the Mossad head, General Zvi Zamir, and when he was put through, he told Zamir that an attack would begin the following day, October 6, which was Yom Kippur, the holiest day of the Jewish year. Marwan stated incorrectly, however, that the attack would take place at sunset.
On Friday, the eve of Yom Kippur, the Israeli cabinet met in emergency session. General Eli Zeira, the head of military intelligence, informed the government that he had incontrovertible evidence that an Egyptian attack would follow the next day at six P.M. Chief of Staff General Elazar immediately requested permission for a preemptive air strike, in what would have been similar to how Israel had handled the crisis of June 1967. Golda Meir refused. Yitzhak Rabin, then serving as Israel’s ambassador to the United States, had agreed to Henry Kissinger’s demands—which were coupled to American threats—that Israel not strike first. Unwilling to risk losing American sympathy and assistance, Meir and Dayan refused the request; not wishing to appear as the aggressors, they also denied the brass’s request for a full IDF mobilization and decided instead on a very limited one. They did agree that should war break out the next day, Golda Meir would have full authority to mobilize the reserves on her own.
YOM KIPPUR IS TYPICALLY an eerily silent day in Israel. By law, all businesses are closed, and scarcely a vehicle moves on the streets. Children sometimes ride their bicycles on the abandoned lanes of Israel’s major highways. Though a religious holiday, it is observed in some way by the vast majority of secular Jews, as well. Most Israeli Jews, even those who are not ordinarily religious, fast for twenty-five hours. Many who usually do not attend synagogue go for at least part of the day. It is a day of stillness, of utter quiet and of deep, intensely private contemplation.
At two P.M. on Yom Kippur in 1973, the silence that had enveloped the entire country was suddenly shattered by air raid sirens. They were the first such sirens Jerusalemites had heard since the Six-Day War. Israelis who turned on their radios at first heard nothing—even most of the radio stations went off the air for Yom Kippur. Those who kept their radios on, however, soon heard precisely what they did not want to hear. “The sirens are not a false alarm. When the siren sounds again, everyone must go to their shelters.” For lack of other prepared programming, the radio stations cut to Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata, known for its evocative funereal tone.
Just over an hour later, at three thirty P.M., another announcement followed. “Egypt and Syria have attacked. Partial mobilization has been ordered.” More air sirens followed, throughout the country—the calm of Yom Kippur was now but a faint memory—and hundreds, then thousands, and finally tens of thousands of people ran, panicked, to bomb shelters. By four P.M., the streets were increasingly filled with vehicles bearing signs that they were being used to transport soldiers to the front, and radio announcements instructed all nonessential traffic to stay off the roads. Gas stations would be opening, public transportation—shut down for the holiday—was going to resume while all nonemergency patients in hospitals would be discharged and sent home to make way for wounded soldiers. That final announcement was the first indication to the public that whatever was happening, it was serious.
In some families, fathers, brothers, and sons were called up, all making their way to their units. Shortly thereafter, a radio announcer confirmed people’s worst fears: “The Egyptians have crossed the Suez Canal and are on the east bank.” By five P.M., the public was informed that “Syrian planes are in action in the Upper Galilee. A fierce air battle is in progress.” Citizens were instructed to stick tape over their windows, mirrors, and pictures to prevent glass shards from flying through their homes.
Moments later, Israelis heard from the prime minister. She reported that even as her cabinet was discussing a possible invasion, Egypt and Syria had opened fire on land and in the air. That was a dramatic understatement. What the prime minister chose not to tell the public was that in the first fifteen minutes of the war, 240 Egyptian fighter jets had crossed the canal, giving support to 2,000 Egyptian soldiers who fired 10,000 shells at Israeli positions in the very first minute of the attack. The barrage of shelling lasted fifty-three minutes.15 The Israelis, on the east side of the canal, had only 436 soldiers, many of them recent immigrants with no battle experience. The prime minister also failed to note that 1,400 Syrian tanks were making their way down the Golan Heights toward Israel’s Galilee, and that facing the main Syrian force of 600 tanks, Israel had only 57 tanks. Syria was on the verge of slicing into Israel’s heartland.
Later in the evening, Moshe Dayan revealed the extent to which the conceptzia, even in the midst of battle, still prevailed. Israeli casualties, he predicted, would be in the “tens”—the losses would not reach hundreds, he said. As for the Golan, he said, “I don’t think it was a bad day for us.” By eight P.M., however, the radio reported that all women and children had been evacuated from the Golan, precisely as had been the case in Gush Etzion before it fell to the Jordanians in May 1948.
By midnight, Israel had mobilized 200,000 reservists, many of whom had been sent directly into battle. When they reached their posts, many found broken and unusable equipment and poorly maintained tanks. In the words of Ariel Sharon’s biographer, “This was not an army primed and poised for war, but rather one that had grown lax and decadent, basking in its overconfidence.”16 Those poorly equipped reservists found themselves facing 300,000 Syrian troops and 850,000 Egyptian soldiers. Once again, as it had done in 1948 and 1967, Iraq joined the fray and sent 14,000 soldiers to the battle. Lebanon fired daily. The IDF was outnumbered six to one.
The Jewish state was twenty-five years old in 1973, and for the third time in its brief history was facing a war for its very survival. For what seemed like an eternity, during the first portion of the war when Israel was on the defensive, the outcome was by no means a foregone conclusion.
THE FIRST FIVE DAYS of what would be a sixteen-day war were the worst for Israel; half of Israel’s total losses occurred in those opening days. With the exception of a few counterattacks, the IDF focused mostly on holding the enemy at bay. Israel’s soldiers were bewildered. Ariel Sharon noted after he visited a base on October 7, “Suddenly something was happening to them that had never happened before. These were soldiers who had been brought up on victories. . . . It was a generation that had never lost. Now they were in a state of shock. . . . How was it that [the Egyptians] were moving forward and we were defeated?”17
The situation was critical. In the first two days of fighting alone, Israel lost 10 percent of its aircraft. An IDF armored division on the front line lost more than half its tanks. The Bar-Lev Line—the much vaunted symbol of Israel’s impermeability—disintegrated. By October 8, Israel had lost 180 of the 290 tanks it had deployed in the Sinai Desert. Dayan, who by then understood the absurdity of his earlier cavalier overconfidence, gave a press conference shortly thereafter, shocking his listeners with his tone of despair. Golda Meir intervened to prevent him from giving a televised interview when she was told that he was going to discuss the possible “destruction of the Third Temple.”18
Golda Meir appealed to President Nixon for assistance, going so far as to hint that Israel was on the brink of destruction; though every hour was critical for Israel, Nixon took his time.* Speaking on television, the prime minister appealed to Jordan not to make the same costly mistake it had made in 1967. Given the level of cooperation between Israel and Jordan, she had reason to believe that Jordan would not take a very active role, if any, in the war. With regard to American aid, however, all she could do was wait and see.
On the fifth day of the war, October 10, the prime minister addressed the Israeli public on television. She condemned the USSR for heavy losses that the Egyptians and Syrians were inflicting on Israel. “Everything that is in the hands of the Syrian and Egyptian soldier, all this comes from the Soviet Union.”19
Nixon, too, understood that Israel was in some ways an actor in a larger drama—a proxy war between the two superpowers—in which others had significant influence. The president instructed his national security adviser that Israel was to get the military hardware it had requested—with the sole exception of laser-guided bombs—as long as Israel did the transporting of the equipment on El Al planes.20 According to some reports, Nixon was motivated not only by increasing American concern regarding Israel’s survival, but also by reports that Israel—worried about its own survival—had taken off the covers of its nuclear arsenal.21
AFTER AN ISRAELI ATTACK in the Sinai on October 8 failed miserably, the IDF General Staff understood that to avert disaster, Israel needed to change the course of the war—immediately. So the IDF’s leadership decided to give priority to the northern border, where the Syrians had made significant headway, and to instruct the south to remain in a defensive position for the time being. It worked. Within two days, by October 10, Israeli forces had pushed the Syrians back to the border from which Syrian president Hafez al-Assad had attacked four days earlier. By October 11, the outskirts of Damascus were within range of Israeli artillery. Shortly thereafter, IAF planes bombed the Syrian Defense Ministry building in Damascus.22 Much more optimistic than he had been just days earlier, Dayan now issued a threat: “The Syrians must learn that the road from Damascus to Israel is also the road from Israel to Damascus.”23
Suddenly, with Syria rather than Israel on the defensive, superpower concerns began to dominate. With the Soviet Union alarmed at Israel’s proximity to Damascus, Anatoly Dobrynin, the Soviet ambassador to the United States, intimated to Kissinger on October 11 that Soviet airborne forces were on alert and Soviet warships were heading to Syrian coastal towns, all to defend Damascus. Two days later, on October 13, Richard Nixon ordered American planes to assist in the military airlift to Israel.
Now Israel had to address the threat from the south. On October 14, the Egyptians made a serious tactical mistake. They pushed beyond their SAM umbrella in order to launch a new attack, exposing themselves to the Israeli Air Force. In the battle that ensued, Egypt lost 250 tanks while Israel lost only 20. The tide in the south had begun to shift.
Israel exploited the momentum. On October 15, under the command of General Ariel Sharon, Israeli forces began a strike that would enable them to cross the Suez Canal. In what was a very bloody battle (Israel lost three hundred soldiers in that battle alone—almost half of what it had lost in the entire Six-Day War), the first Israeli troops made it to the other side of the canal. Within a week, the IDF had crossed the canal en masse and had captured its western bank. On October 19, the Soviet Union and the United States began to pressure Egypt and Israel, respectively, to call for a cease-fire. Fighting continued, however, in both the north and the south.
On October 22, the United Nations Security Council met and then passed Resolution 338, calling for a cessation of fighting at 6:52 P.M. that day. Just two minutes before the deadline, Israeli radio announced that Israel would accept the terms of the cease-fire.
Still, the battles persisted. But at two A.M. on October 24, after the IDF had encircled the Egyptian Third Army and could have wiped it out, Egypt and Syria agreed to the cease-fire. When it went into effect at one P.M., the war was essentially over.
BY THE END OF THE WAR, the IDF had performed admirably. In dogfights, the IAF shot down 277 Arab planes, losing only 6 of its own (a 46:1 ratio). Altogether, the Arab armies lost 432 planes to Israel’s 102. The cost in men had been very high. Arab casualties numbered 8,258 dead and 19,540 wounded, though some Israeli estimates of Arab casualties claim that the real losses were twice that—15,000 dead (among them 11,000 Egyptians) and 35,000 wounded (25,000 of them Egyptian).24
Israel lost 2,656 soldiers, with another 7,250 wounded. It was a figure dramatically lower than the Arab losses, but it was more than three times what Israel had lost in 1967—when it had tripled its size in a lightning war of six days. In this war, which had dragged on for much longer, Israel ended up essentially where it had started. There had clearly been egregious blunders in the days leading up to the war, and the country was reeling from the astounding number of casualties. Many Israeli assumptions about land, peace, and war were shattered. Though Israelis had cause to have confidence, once again, in the soldiers at the front, they had less confidence in their leadership; and their hope for any possibility of peace in the region had eroded. Gone, for many, was the hope that there would ever be a “last war.” As Yigal Yadin noted after the conflict, “This [was] the first war in which fathers and sons have been in action together. We never thought that would happen. We—the fathers—fought in order that our sons would not have to go to war.”25
Damaged, too, was Israelis’ confidence in their allies. Particularly among Israel’s political Right, there were many who would never forgive Kissinger for having delayed arms shipments when they had been so desperately needed. France’s support of the Arab state by supplying military equipment surprised few, but Israelis were stunned that Britain—which, like much of post-oil-boycott Europe, was abandoning Israel and moving toward the Arabs—had imposed an embargo on military aid to the region. When Britain finally broke its own embargo, it was by training Egyptian helicopter pilots. When Israel complained, Britain told Israel that they were better off having those pilots training in England than at the front in the Middle East. Third World countries, including those in whom Israel had invested significant money and expertise, cut off ties with the Jewish state.
Oil, too, had entered the picture once again. On October 17, in the midst of the war, Arab countries imposed an oil embargo as punishment of the United States and other countries that had supported Israel. The embargo threw the American and other Western economies into chaos, placing Israel squarely in the crosshairs of international intrigue once again. OPEC (Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries, dominated by Saudi Arabia) emerged and would color U.S. foreign policy for decades.
THE CONCEPTZIA HAD BEEN replaced by a deep sense of gloom, a loss of faith in the country’s leaders, and a realization that the IDF was not invincible. A country that had grown accustomed to being the victor slowly and painfully came to terms with the magnitude of its losses. The media showed footage of Israeli POWs, a phenomenon to which Israelis were unaccustomed and that they found horrifying. There were pictures of burned-out Israeli tanks and dead IDF soldiers. One kibbutz, Beit Hashita, lost eleven of its sons. The film of a caravan of eleven army jeeps, each carrying a coffin draped in an Israeli flag, was more than many viewers could bear.
It was also more than many of the kibbutz members could bear. The absolute rejection of religion and the utter commitment to secularism of the founding generation began to give way. It was too early to tell then, but Israel was going to move away from its early image of the new Jew—secular, confident, dismissive of religion—and would begin to search for meaning in places that previous generations would have dismissed out of hand.
Naomi Shemer, who had written “Jerusalem of Gold” in 1967, proved almost prophetic once again. Shortly before the 1973 war, she wrote a Hebrew version of the Beatles song “Let It Be.” After the war, she changed the lyrics and the melody, though the refrain still subtly evokes the Beatles’ melody. Her song, which took the country by storm and is still widely sung, captured the sadness of an entire nation.26 “There is still a white sail on the horizon,” she wrote, but “beneath a heavy black cloud.” And in an obvious invoking of the Beatles, yet with a distinct 1973 Israeli resonance, she wrote:
All that we long for, let it be.
Please, let it be, let it be
All that we long for, let it be.
Even with the passage of time, the country’s sadness did not abate. On Israel Independence Day in 1995, Israelis heard the first performance of a song that would soon become an Israeli classic. Titled “Winter ’73,” it begins: “We are the children of winter of ’73.” Their parents, the children sang, “First dreamt us at dawn, when the battles ceased.” Creating them, these children understood, was an act of desperation, of their parents’ passionately clinging to the very possibility of hope: “And when you conceived us with love in winter of ’73, / You wanted to fill your bodies with all that the war had taken away.”27
Yet their parents had made promises, too. “You promised to do everything for us, to turn our enemy into a loved one.” Even a whole generation later, though, that had not happened. Hence the refrain that had Israel in its grip, and which still evokes goose bumps among a population that continues to sing the song:
You promised peace;
You promised spring at home and blossoms;
You promised to keep your promises;
You promised a dove.
When that song appeared in 1995, more than two decades after the Yom Kippur War, no dove had come. Israel was a country with a still-broken heart, a country still at war. Even the religious holiday of atonement, Yom Kippur, would never be the same in the Jewish state. A religious holiday of deep personal introspection had been transformed into—and remains to this very day—an annual remembrance of incompetence, grief, loss, and the shattering of Israeli illusions.
In many ways, the Yom Kippur War irrevocably shattered part of Israel’s soul.
THE WAR HAD PROFOUND political ramifications, as well. As early as November 13, 1973, Menachem Begin attacked both Golda Meir and the government in the Knesset for what he said was their incompetent handling of the war. Begin had been relegated to the opposition for decades, but now Israelis were listening. Even more damaging to the Labor Party’s hegemony, however, was the Agranat Commission, established to investigate what had happened in the period leading up to the war. The commission was appointed on November 21, 1973, and published its findings on April 1, 1974. It held the army brass accountable for numerous failures, but for the most part, sidestepped placing blame on the government. Three senior army officials—David Elazar (chief of staff), General Eli Zeira (head of the intelligence branch), and Shmuel Gonen (chief of the Southern Command)—were stripped of their positions. Gonen left Israel immediately thereafter, living out the rest of his life in Africa. He died of a heart attack at the age of sixty-one. David Elazar also died of a heart attack, in April 1976, less than three years after the war. He was fifty-one years old.
Though the Agranat Commission was less critical of Golda Meir and Moshe Dayan, that in some ways actually made matters worse for the political echelon. They seemed to be getting a “pass”; the public grew angry and disgusted and began to clamor for politicians’ resignations.
Peaceful mass protests began. The best known was Motti Ashkenazi’s lone demonstration across from the prime minister’s residence in Jerusalem, where he held a sign that read: “Grandma [the nickname given to Prime Minister Golda Meir], your defense minister is a failure and 3,000 of your grandchildren are dead.”28 Prior to the war, speaking that way to an elected official would have been unthinkable; this time, it galvanized a nation. The Labor Party won the postponed elections in December 1973, but Golda Meir resigned in April 1974 and was succeeded by Yitzhak Rabin. Rabin had a smaller majority than Meir had had in her first term, and with the country still seething, he was in many ways presiding over a party whose hegemony was about to end.
Rabin’s rise to the office of prime minister marked the beginning of a new era. He was the first prime minister born in the twentieth century and the first native-born. He was the first who had received his entire education in Israel and was the first to emerge from the ranks of the army. Israelis felt ready for a new sort of leader.29
American Jews sensed the change, and some, who had found a self-confident, pugnacious Israel difficult to deal with post-1967, were actually relieved that some of the wind had been taken out of Israel’s sails. “It will be a pleasure,” several American Jewish leaders occasionally remarked, “to deal with a lesser Israel.”30 In the ongoing tension between the views of Jacob Blaustein and David Ben-Gurion, those of Blaustein were once again on the ascendancy.
IN DECEMBER 1973, to add even more pain to a country still in agony, just months after the war, David Ben-Gurion died. He had been ailing for some time, but given the trauma that Israel had just endured, the death of the country’s founder and father figure was another painful blow.
He had autocratic tendencies and probably stayed in politics just a bit too long. But born in Europe, he came to Palestine early, out of pure ideology, and picked oranges, built labor unions, and rose to the top of Yishuv politics. Then, David Ben-Gurion nimbly guided the Yishuv through the turbulent years of British rule, building prestate institutions and then a state itself. He had an impeccable sense of timing, knew when to wait and when to move, and declared the state even before it was ready, because he knew that another opportunity might never arise.
Not a military man, he guided the fledgling state through the War of Independence with courage and strategic brilliance. If Herzl had given life to political Zionism, David Ben-Gurion had given life to the State of Israel. He was, Yitzhak Navon (Israel’s fifth president) firmly believed, “the greatest Jew who had lived since the destruction of the Second Temple” two thousands years earlier.31 And now he was gone.
Israelis, already shattered and heartbroken after the war, watched David Ben-Gurion’s funeral on television, one Israeli author noted, “as if they were watching their own.”32
THE WAR HAD BEGUN with disaster and it shattered the conceptzia. Yet there were also remarkable dimensions to Israel’s conduct during the Yom Kippur War. Syrian tanks had been poised to slice through the north of Israel, but the public, while worried, did not flee. The military had made terrible mistakes before the war and in its early days, but under unimaginable pressure, it regrouped, retooled its strategy, and ultimately demonstrated once again Israel’s military supremacy. Israel’s soldiers had died by the hundreds and then by the thousands, to some extent because of mistakes made by higher-ups, but Israeli soldiers stayed at the front. They did not flee, they did not surrender. Though they had not heard Dayan’s comment to the prime minister that the Third Temple—the renewed Jewish commonwealth—was at stake, they intuited that they had come close to losing everything. Israel was not going to fall on their watch.
As it always had, Israel’s democracy worked away, with civilians holding accountable both military brass and the country’s public leadership.
Israel’s military position at the end of the war was overwhelming. It had the Egyptian Third Army encircled and could have destroyed it. In the north, Israeli armor was poised to reach Damascus. Especially given the element of surprise and Israel’s initial losses, it was a stunning military accomplishment. The Yom Kippur War, in fact, was the last time that Israel would face an enemy’s standing army.33 Despite the failures leading up to the war and in its first days, the IDF had convinced its neighboring Arab states that attacking Israel head-on was a self-destructive, losing proposition.
Still, Israel had not “won,” not in the way to which it had become accustomed. Years later, Shlomo Gazit (head of military intelligence from 1974 to 1979) admitted in a televised interview that the Yom Kippur War had had no victor.34 That military deadlock, he believed, made both sides more open to the possibility of a peace treaty than they had ever been before.
THE ARAB BATTLE TO destroy Israel was far from over. Having lost on the battlefield, Israel’s enemies took their campaign elsewhere. For years, the Palestinians had also been engaged in a diplomatic assault on Israel. Now, European countries, intimidated by the Arab oil embargo, kowtowed to Arab and Palestinian pressure, enabling that diplomatic assault to become more effective. In November 1974, Yasser Arafat was invited to speak at the United Nations. In what became known as the “Olive Branch and Gun” speech, he spoke not about peace with Israel, but about the “Jewish invasion of Palestine.” Threatening violence as much as he alluded to peace, he said, to great applause, “Today I come bearing an olive branch in one hand, and the freedom fighter’s gun in the other. Do not let the olive branch fall from my hand. I repeat, do not let the olive branch fall from my hand.”
Responding to the applause, Arafat clasped his hands above his head, and a holster on his belt came into view. The holster, which Arafat had brought with obvious symbolic intent into the plenum of the General Assembly, was a thinly veiled threat of continuing violence, but it had no impact on the applause. Arafat had declared war on Israel’s existence, and the UN responded with adulation and a standing ovation. Merely a year later, the General Assembly granted the PLO observer status at the United Nations.
The UN’s assault on Israel continued. In November 1975, the General Assembly approved—by a vote of 72 to 35 (with 32 abstentions)—Resolution 3379, which stated that “Zionism is a form of racism and racial discrimination.” The United States voted against the resolution. Daniel Patrick Moynihan, U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, denounced what he understood was really happening: “The United Nations is about to make anti-Semitism international law.” Moynihan thundered his now famous declaration, “The [United States] . . . does not acknowledge, it will not abide by it, it will never acquiesce in this infamous act. . . . A great evil has been loosed upon the world.”35
Even Moynihan had no idea how far and how fast international delegitimization of the Jewish state would soon spread. Though wars against standing armies were now behind it, Israel was in some ways less secure. In many ways, the Jewish state was about to become an international pariah—and would find itself far more vulnerable than it had ever been before.