Jewish Journal


The 1973 Exchange, Part 1: What Caused the Yom Kippur Blunder?

by Shmuel Rosner

September 8, 2013 | 8:26 am

Dr. Yigal Kipnis

Dr. Yigal Kipnis is an Israeli historian and since 1978 he has been a farmer and a resident of the Golan Heights. Kipnis teaches at the University of Haifa and researches the settlement geography and political history of Israel. Kipnis also served as a pilot in the Israeli Air Force for 31 years (26 of them in the IAF reserves).

The following exchange will focus on his book '1973: The Road to War', which came out in Hebrew in late 2012. The book, which has received fantastic reviews in the Israeli press by various acclaimed critics (such as Dan Margalit, Ofer Shelah, Ronen Bergman, and Yossi Sarid) is scheduled to come out in English later this year.  


Dear Yigal,

I think it's appropriate to begin our conversation by coming clean and telling our readers that I was heavily involved with the publication of your book - 1973 - in Hebrew a year ago. I read the manuscript and found it provocative and worthy a long time ago, which doesn't mean I agree with your conclusions. In fact, as the editor in charge of many books on the Yom Kippur War (this year marks the 40th anniversary, and I'm working with four authors on four new books about the war), I am in a rather unique position: I have to be able to endorse competing and at times conflicting views related to the cause of this war.

Now let's talk about yours. 

There are several schools of thought, each emphasizing a different aspect of the blunder that was Israel's unpreparedness for the war. Some say: it is all about lack of intelligence, and put the blame on Israel's then head of intelligence. Some say: the Egyptians lead Israel by the nose, with the capable assistance of master spy Ashraf Marwan. Others say: the politicians were too smug to believe that the Arabs will ever attack. And there are those who blame the military for not having a good enough strategy for defending the Sinai Peninsula. 

Your book says something else. Your book says: Israel wasn't ready to take a peace deal that was on the table. And you believe, as William Quandt writes in the introduction to your English version of the book (the book it due in September), that "if Israel had been more willing to engage diplomatically, if the US had pressed its ideas more insistently, he believes that Sadat would not have gone to war". So, to kick start this discussion- why should we believe such a theory, and why did we have to wait so long for it to surface?



Dear Shmuel,

I am happy to relate to the personal aspect of your introduction and to note that at the end of the Hebrew edition of the book I expressed my thanks to you for listening, for giving me the opportunity, and for advising and directing the writing and the editing. I may now add that your contribution has played a significant part in the resonance the book has had in Israel and in the great reviews it has received.   

The opening of your question invites reference to recent developments in historical research, as there is no disagreement today among researchers of the period that the war was the culmination of a failure of political analysis. The rich documentation which has been declassified and revealed by US and Israeli archives and an integration of this information points out the central role of political conduct on the road to war and the severity of the failure of comprehension which took place in all official Israeli bodies. The updated research testifies that the conduct of the defense minister and the prime minister during the period leading up to the war was based on external and internal political considerations; that the errors made by the head of military intelligence and his research department in assessing a low probability of war had almost no effect on decision making; and that the inability to hold on to the frontline and other military difficulties did not stem from a failure to warn in advance.

The documents which continue to be revealed only confirm and reinforce the findings of the book: that Golda Meir and Moshe Dayan's behavior in the hours and days before the outbreak of the war was based on the following:

  1. The Israeli obligation to the United States to "wait longer than two hours" with its response to Sadat's war moves, that is, not to launch a preventive attack and not to mobilize its reserves on a large scale.
  2. The assumption that, in contrast to Syria, Sadat would prefer another round of negotiations rather than a military move.
  3. The desire to avoid calling up the reserves, which they thought would result in further tension and in a difficult security atmosphere in Israel three weeks before the elections were due to take place in late October 1973.
  4. The desire to lessen the impression that war was imminent so that Kissinger would not move quickly to initiate the political process for which he was preparing Israel.
  5. The intelligence information from Ashraf Marwan until the day before war broke out, determining that a war was not expected in 1973. In addition, the war warning transmitted by King Hussein (two weeks before the war) and Marwan's warning (12 hours before the outbreak of the war) were limited by their appraisal that war could be avoided if political steps were taken, even at the last minute.

Forty years after the war, we are now at a turning point in historical writing and research. An examination of  the events of 1973, especially those which took place before the war, indicates this turning point, as early and preliminary  interpretations have been replaced by well based research and writing. Narratives which controlled personal and collective memory through the years- and which rested on information that was partial, deficient, sometimes mistaken and in many cases biased- have given way to a broader updated view based on reliable documentation. Much of this information has not been known to researchers up until now and it presently enables a more precise and in-depth investigation that is impartial and avoids personal biases.

Memory, with all of its illusiveness, bias and deceptiveness can no longer be used as the main basis of information- it can only support or complete knowledge from other sources. The writings we have had up to now have been characterized for the most part by apologetics or by accusations. These are now yielding to more fundamental and unbiased historical research.

There are still those who have difficulty and refuse to accept this natural process of research development with regard to 1973. Again and again, they argue for positions and conclusions which do not fit the updated information released in the archives and which continues to be released. It is no coincidence that those who stubbornly insist on maintaining the intelligence and military narratives of Israeli conduct in the period before the war find themselves irrelevant in the wider discourse which has been taking place this year.    

The efforts to comprehend what really happened on the road to the Yom Kippur War and after that and why it happened, cannot be too focused on questions of who the "good guys" were and who the "bad guys" were. Understanding the story of this prewar period is not only a moral debt to those who fell in the war, to the wounded, and to their families, friends and neighbors. It is necessary for the present and the future, since the basic questions about Israel's political-military discourse and the mutual relations between the army, the assessment bodies, and the decision makers still exist. 



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