When people in Israel are pondering whether to embark on a hasty and unnecessary war against Iran, they should study well the unfortunate case of 1973 from two perspectives - the domestic and the American.
The decision-making process suffered from basic defects. Essential reading in this case is the book by Maj. Gen. (res. ) Emanuel Sakal, "Hasadir Yivlom?," about the battles to hold back the Egyptian army in the 1973 Yom Kippur War, where he fought as a determined and outstanding battalion commander. It is a harsh and persuasive indictment of Prime Minister Golda Meir and Defense Minister Moshe Dayan, Israel Defense Forces Chief of Staff David Elazar, GOC Southern Command Shmuel Gonen and the commander of Division 252, Albert Mandler.
But in conclusions about the diplomatic sphere, Sakal is mistaken and Meir and Dayan were right: If Israel had disobeyed Washington and attacked first, it would have played into the hands of Egyptian President Anwar Sadat.
In 1973, not for the last time, the prime minister and the defense minister were locked into a rigid mode of thought and withheld critical information about conversations with Washington from the head of Military Intelligence and the chief of staff. In so doing, they compromised the ability of the latter to assess and prepare.
The same Dayan - who was working for Meir when he concealed from Eli Zeira, the chief of Military Intelligence during the Yom Kippur War, and from Elazar, the content of conversations with U.S. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger - reappeared as Menachem Begin's foreign minister and concealed talks with Sadat from MI chief Shlomo Gazit and from Chief of Staff Mordechai Gur. During the Oslo talks, Yitzhak Rabin treated MI chief Uri Saguy and Chief of Staff Ehud Barak in the same way.
Lacking key data, Gur publicly expressed in 1977 concern over another deception by Sadat, this time in Sadat's announcement that he was coming to Jerusalem. That, in itself, is understandable and excusable. But the attitude to the "deception" reflects a common and deep-rooted misunderstanding of the events of 1973 to this day: Sadat did not want to deceive Israel, but to motivate Washington in turn to motivate Israel - through talks if possible, by attack if necessary - toward a final-status agreement that would return the Sinai to Egypt.
That was well-known truth, so frequently heard as to elicit a yawn. Beneath it lurked a system-wide deception in September and October to conceal the date of the attack that Egypt and Syria had decided on. But the strange circumstances of the spy for Israel, Egyptian businessman Ashraf Marwan's scheduling of his meeting with Mossad chief Zvi Zamir, half a day before the war started, hints that Sadat was even more cunning than was commonly believed, and that it was Sadat who conveyed the warning to Meir, through the Marwan-Zamir channel.
To Sadat's mind, it would be too late to thwart the military campaign that was intended to break the diplomatic impasse, but still early enough to lure Israel into acting, as it usually did, according to the 1956 and 1967 modes, and strike first.
An Israeli strike on Sadat's air bases, which were put on high defensive alert, would have served Sadat's purposes. Militarily it would not have extensively disrupted the Suez Canal crossing, with aerial coverage provided by ground-to-air missiles, not aircraft. In a more important arena, the diplomatic one, it would reveal Israel as the aggressor and push Richard Nixon's administration to move ahead on, and perhaps even to impose, an agreement - back to the June 5 lines, and not to those of October 6, as some in the IDF innocently hoped.
Meir and Dayan knew that Israel would be penalized in war and peace, if it broke its pledge not to launch a pre-emptive strike. Sadat secretly renewed contacts with Kissinger on the second day of the war. From his point of view, that war could have ended then. The military aim had been achieved with the crossing of the canal and with a foothold on its eastern side; the depth and strength of that hold were less important. If Israel had agreed to such an end, thousands of casualties could have been averted.
Israel must not embark on a war that is unjustified in terms of immediate survival without American permission. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta, who visited Tel Aviv to publicly coordinate with Israel on Iran, acted like an American father informing his son that he can have the family car for the weekend only if he checks with him first.
Moreover, the thought gnaws at one that perhaps Iran's Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei learned from Sadat and is luring Israel into an attack on Iran so that Iran can respond militarily, earning public-relations points and advancing its strategic goals.
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