Monday, October 11, 2010

Minutes of War

The October 6th anniversary of the 1973 Yom Kippur War was accompanied this year by the unexpected release of war cabinet minutes by Israel's State Archives covering the opening days of the fighting. There were no startling revelations; certainly no references to Israel's purported nuclear capabilities; or confirmation that defense minister Moshe Dayan told prime minister Golda Meir that "the Third Temple is in danger." Still, the publication of the protocols reopened old wounds and temporarily threw "start-up nation" Israel into an existential funk.

Though there have been countless war histories, memoires by key participants, and the official findings of the Agranat Commission -- which blamed David Elazar, the country's top general, for allowing the army to be taken by surprise -- the cabinet transcripts provided a fresh sense of immediacy. Here was Meir worrying aloud that the dangers Israel faced were even greater than those it confronted during the 1948 War of Independence. The publicly unflappable Moshe Dayan is in despair telling the cabinet that the war was being lost; that Syria and Egypt could conquer Israel; that Jordan would likely open-up a third front. "I didn't sufficiently appreciate the strength of the enemy" and overestimated the IDF's ability to cope with this kind of attack, he admits. The Soviet-supplied surface-to-air missiles are taking a devastating toll on the air force. There is talk of calling up older high-school students, long-retired reservists, even enlisting Diaspora Jews. Meir offers to travel secretly to Washington where she would throw herself at Richard Nixon's mercy.

The released minutes created a hue and cry even though the peril Israel faced during those dark days is no secret. Elazar partisans press again for his full public rehabilitation; after all, the minutes show him cool-headed, wisely urging -- against Dayan's recommendation -- a full IDF mobilization. Some columnists take Dayan to task for his willingness to abandon wounded soldiers to their fate after Egyptian forces overran the Bar-Lev Line fortifications. His daughter Yael tells Israel Radio that her late father had written openly of his regrets in his memoirs.

Post-Zionists relish the harm done to Dayan's image -- another Zionist icon punctured. For Israel's left, the message of the minutes is about the limitations of Israeli military power. The current cabinet is urged to pursue compromise over political stagnation and more war. Security hawks draw other lessons. By the morning of October 6, 1973 Israel had compelling, albeit imperfect, intelligence to recommend a preemptive attack. Meir worried that if Israel struck first, the international community would blame the Jews for the war: “The world’s nastiness is plain to see. They won’t believe us."

The protocols strike a chord with Israelis who know that for all their country's technological prowess and despite its Western standard of living, the existential dangers the Jewish state faced 37 years ago are no less real today. Iran is intent on developing nuclear weapons and unequivocal about its genocidal intentions toward the Zionist enterprise. Hezbollah has transformed Lebanon into an Iranian satellite. Syria, aligned with Iran, is a constant menace. Hamas controlled Gaza is also in Iran's orbit. Meantime, even moderate Palestinian Arabs reject the mantra: "Two states, one Jewish, one Arab, living side-by-side in peace."

Israelis know, too, that an all-out war nowadays, when missiles pose a near-insurmountable danger, could devastate Israel's civilian population concentrated along the country's narrow coastal plain. Fortunately, a combination of determination and healthy denial provides ordinary Israelis with the coping mechanism necessary to go about their daily lives.

The minutes inform contemporary decision makers that intelligence about enemy intentions especially in wartime is imperfect. Fortunately, the Syrians and Egyptians hadn't grasped the extent of Israel's unpreparedness and did not press their advantage. Perhaps their goals were limited in the first place. In any event, the minutes challenge the notion that the diplomatic fallout of a preemptive attack makes it smart policy to absorb the first blow. If that were the case, UN Security Council Resolution 338, which ended the war, would have given Israel credit for waiting to be attacked and suffering 2,656 dead and 7,000 wounded.

Israel's current top general, Gabi Ashkenazi, writes that the nation has taken on board the main lesson of the Yom Kippur War: never to underestimate any enemy and never to allow intelligence to lead to false certainties.

-- October 2010

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