I moderated a panel Sunday in which three historians disagreed with one another on the core failure of the 1973 Yom Kippur War. I know these three historians – Amiram Ezov, Uri Bar-Joseph, Yigal Kipnis - and I was the editor in charge of the book each has published in the last two years: respectively, "Tzlicha" (Water Crossing), about 60 hours in October 1973; "HaMalach" (The Angel), which tells the story of spy Ashraf Marwan; and "1973, The Road to War", published just a week ago, in which Kipnis looks at the year leading up to the war, and what he describes as the failed attempt of then-Egyptian President Anwar Sadat to have peace treaty with Israel as substitute for war – and attempt that was rebuffed by Israel. All three are serious people who treat their research accordingly.
These three experts presented in their books three lenses through which to look at the 1973 war: Ezov focuses on the military and the fight; Bar-Jospeh on the failure of the intelligence community to provide proper warning of the war; and Kipnis looks at the war through a diplomatic lens – his book ends when the war begins, and most of the action takes place in Washington, where Henry Kissinger and Yitzhak Rabin were negotiating their way through an alleyway of delays. Prime Minister Golda Meir and Defense Minister Moshe Dayan did not want to seriously consider peace proposals before elections in Israel, and Rabin (and later his successor, Simcha Dinitz) were charged with the task of communicating this position to National Security Advisor Kissinger.
Kipnis' book, the most recent of the three, caused a small stir in Israel's tiny cadre of Yom Kippur aficionados. It aims to turn common knowledge on its head – as was reflected in one early review of the book last week (by Amir Oren):
The Agranat report (the Agranat committee investigated the war failure. SR) implicated (Military Chief of Staff) Elazar, (Chief of IDF Intelligence) Zeira, other senior IDF intelligence officers and GOC Southern Command Shmuel Gonen-Gorodisch. The report implied that Meir and Dayan were victims in the situation, and placed the blame specifically on Elazar and Zeira… The materials published recently by Kipnis, and documents released by the archives, paint a different picture – in fact, a mirror image. Apparently, it was the civilians who caused harm to the soldiers.
The experts on the panel were asked to provide an answer to a simple question: What was the core reason for the Israeli failure? There was general agreement between the three that the war – even though it was ended with Israeli forces deep inside Egypt - could not be considered a victory.
From left to right: "Tzlicha", "1973, the Road to War", and "HaMalach"
Next year, Israel will mark the fortieth anniversary of the war - a national trauma. "Where would the publishing industry be without that war?" a friend asked sarcastically, just as I was leaving to moderate the literary panel. Thus, the answer to the question of the reasons for failure was interesting and telling; experts, like most people, tend to look at events from the perspective of their own field of investigation.
Kipnis thought it was all the politicians' fault. The failures of the intelligence and the military notwithstanding, the war was the result of Israeli rejectionism, and the military fell victim to politicians' intrigue: Golda and Dayan did not bother to update the army brass that an Egyptian offer for peace had been rebuffed.
Bar-Joseph argued that the ultimate cause for the Yom Kippur failure was the lack of proper warning. Had the military known that the Syrians and the Egyptians were about to attack, had it known the date and time, had it had the chance to quickly draft the reserves and send more troops to the borders – the picture would have been different, the attack would have been quickly repulsed. Israel was much stronger than the attacking armies, he argued, the only reason for the disastrous first days of the war was the element of surprise.
Ezov, the military historian whose research mainly focuses on forces' movements, generals' maneuvers, fierce battles, was not so sure that what the other two were saying was accurate. Even without the "surprise", he said, the military might not have been able to stop the attack. The Egyptians had clear tactical objectives – to cross the Suez Canal and advance a couple of kilometers – and the IDF was not well prepared to halt such advance.
Naturally, no debate of such nature is complete without the attempt to learn a lesson, but the lesson is not always obvious to all. For Kipnis, the events of 1973 should serve as a warning to future governments: Here a case in which the U.S. and Israeli governments had good channels of communication, they were well coordinated, and the Israeli government was able to achieve its goal – rejecting, postponing, playing for time - without alienating the Americans. The ultimate cost was high: thousands dead, and national trauma. So responding to peace overtures would be one lesson. Avoiding an instinctive tendency to persuade the Americans to do what Israel wants, and at times let the U.S. convince Israel do what the Americans think is right would be another.
There’s a problem though with both lessons: they only apply to serious peace proposals and to cases in which the Americans have a better understanding of the situation. This basically leaves us where we were all along: having to make an assessment and act accordingly. Having to live with the assessments our leaders make.