Yom Kippur War
A scene from the war. The low probability Military Intelligence ascribed to the chance of a coordinated Egyptian-Syrian offensive is still a source of disgrace. Photo by GPO
Text size

Could the Yom Kippur War have been avoided? Did 2,700 Israeli soldiers who died defending Israel against the combined attack of Egypt and Syria in October 1973 lose their lives in vain? On the occasion of the 40th anniversary of the war, an avalanche of books, articles and documentaries by professional and amateur historians would have us believe that if only Golda Meir had been more receptive to Anwar Sadat’s overtures, he and the Syrian dictator Hafez Assad would have abandoned their plans to attack Israel.

These speculations, 40 years after the war, will probably never be put to rest. Nor will the arguments regarding the many Israeli mistakes committed during the war. But one should not lose sight of the bottom line: the great Israeli victory. After 18 days the IDF stood 101 kilometers from Cairo, the third Egyptian Army was encircled, and the IDF was within artillery range of Damascus. But even more important is the big picture: the unequivocal demonstration that no coalition of Arab armies could defeat the IDF. This established Israel’s deterrence against additional Arab attacks, deterrence effective to this day, 40 years after the war, and which is likely to continue to be effective for many more years.

Mistakes are made in all wars, even by the victors. Israel made many mistakes during the Yom Kippur War and the Israel TV documentaries, by dwelling on these mistakes, are pouring salt on our wounds. But it is the final result that counts. In World War II the American armed forces also made numerous mistakes, but the final result was victory.

It can also be argued that America could have avoided participation in that war, a war in which over 400,000 American soldiers lost their lives. In the first years of World War II there was strong sentiment in the United States that America, protected by two big oceans, should stay out of the war. Franklin Roosevelt campaigned for reelection to his third term as President in 1940 with a promise that he was going to keep America out of the war. It is true that the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941 changed all that, but it is generally forgotten that the United States actually cornered Japan into an impossible position by the oil embargo it imposed on Japan in August 1941, at a time when Japan was relying on 80 percent of its oil from America. Bereft of this vital resource and with time running out for their economy, the Japanese decided that they had no choice but to go to war. For America the war might possibly have been avoided.

But no one in America today sees U.S. participation in World War II as an avoidable war or argues that 400,000 American soldiers lost their lives in that war in vain. And the reason is obvious: Not only was America victorious, but everyone, professional and amateur historians alike, acknowledge that it is the big picture that counts. Allied victory in World War II put an end to the expansionist plans of Germany and Japan and brought an end to the cycles of war that had convulsed Europe and the Far East for decades.

And likewise the Israeli victory in the Yom Kippur War put an end to the cycle of full-scale wars that were launched against Israel by coalitions of Arab armies ever since May 15, 1948. Without this victory that cycle would have continued, regardless of what Golda Meir’s response to Sadat’s overtures might have been. Her agreement to his demands that Israel return to the armistice lines of 1949 – abandon the Sinai, the Golan Heights, Judea, Samaria, and Gaza - would have served as an invitation to further Arab attacks against Israel. If Israel was going to survive, the Yom Kippur War had to be fought and won. That war could not be avoided.