MADRID – The approach of the 40th anniversary of the Yom Kippur War has been marked in Israel largely by the recurrent debate about the failures of Israeli intelligence in detecting and thwarting Egypt’s surprise attack. But Israel’s blunder in October 1973 was more political than military, more strategic than tactical – and thus particularly relevant today, when a robust Israeli peace policy should be a central pillar of its security doctrine.
The Yom Kippur War was, in many ways, Israel’s punishment for its post-1967 arrogance – hubris always begets nemesis. Egypt had been so resoundingly defeated in the Six-Day War of June 1967 that Israel’s leaders dismissed the need to be proactive in the search for peace. They encouraged a national mood of strategic complacency that percolated into the military as much as it was influenced by the military, paving the way for the success of Egypt’s exercise in tactical deceit.
“We are awaiting the Arabs’ phone call. We ourselves won’t make a move,” Moshe Dayan, Israel’s defense minister, said. “We are quite happy with the current situation. If anything bothers the Arabs, they know where to find us.” But when Egyptian President Anwar Sadat finally called in February 1971, and again in early 1973, with bold peace initiatives, Israel’s line was either busy, or no one on the Israeli side picked up the phone.
The Six-Day War brought moral and political decay to Israel, transforming the national mood in a way that made peace an impossible endeavor. Drunk with victory, and increasingly unable to tell the difference between Messianic mythology and objective conditions, Israel and its leaders lost touch with reality. Everyone fell in love with the territorial windfall stretching from the Jordan River in the east to the Suez Canal in the west, from Mount Hermon in the north to Sharm al-Sheikh in the south.
Israel’s post-1967 orgy of political and military triumphalism blinded its leaders to the opportunities for peace that its lightning military exploits created. They missed the chance to turn a tactical success into a major strategic victory for Zionism in the form of a political settlement with much of the Arab world.
The defeat of the Arab armies in 1967 was the prelude to a fundamental transformation in the structure of the Arab-Israeli conflict that Israel’s leaders either misread or overlooked. The Arab policy of “removing the traces of aggression” was now no longer applied to Israel’s conquests of 1948, but to the lands that it occupied after the Six-Day War. But, rather than seizing on that shift to legitimize its birth in the eyes of its Arab neighbors, Israel preferred to reopen the dormant debate on Zionism’s territorial objectives.
It is difficult to imagine a greater gulf than that which existed between Sadat, the creative and far-sighted statesman, and Israeli Prime Minister Golda Meir’s immobile government. Meir would not agree to the deployment of Egyptian forces on the eastern bank of the Suez Canal, and she would not accept the provision that the interim agreement should lead to the implementation of United Nations Security Council Resolution 242.
Sadat’s peace overtures were defeated not because they lacked merit, but because Egypt was perceived as not having a military option to back them up. US Secretary of State Henry Kissinger implicitly advised the Egyptians that they would be taken seriously only by starting a war. In February 1973, Sadat’s national security adviser, Hafiz Ismail, conveyed to Kissinger a proposal for a comprehensive peace agreement with Israel – a last-ditch attempt to avert military conflict. “I cannot deal with your problem unless it becomes a crisis,” Kissinger responded.
The Israelis, for their part, assumed that the Arabs would start a war only when they had a chance to win it. That is why Meir ignored an explicit warning by “the best of Israel’s enemies,” King Hussein of Jordan, ten days before the 1973 war, that an Egyptian-Syrian offensive was imminent.
But Sadat never expected to defeat Israel, and his strategy did not aim at military victory. His was to be a political war, a classic Clausewitzian tactic that complemented his peace strategy. What he wanted was to launch a political process by shaking Israel out of its complacency and forcing the superpowers to revive the search for a settlement.
It is a sad lesson of the Middle East that every major peace breakthrough has come only as a consequence of war. The 1948 war led to the 1949 Armistice Agreements; the Yom Kippur War had to precede Israel’s peace with Egypt; and the Oslo Accords required the 1990-1991 Gulf War and the 1987-1992 Palestinian Intifada.
Today, the Palestinian front seems calm. But Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu’s government should avoid the complacency of Meir’s government in 1973. Military intelligence is no substitute for statesmanship, and a credible peace policy is still the best way to halt the slide to war.
Copyright Project Syndicate
Shlomo Ben Ami, a former Israeli foreign minister who now serves as Vice President of the Toledo International Center for Peace, is the author of Scars of War, Wounds of Peace: The Israeli-Arab Tragedy.
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