Here is an old story with a timely lesson: In April 1973, about half a year before the outbreak of the Yom Kippur War, warnings reached Israel from several reliable Mossad sources, to the effect that Egypt intended to begin a war, in coordination with Syria, on May 19. Prime minister Golda Meir quickly convened her "kitchen cabinet" and in a discussion that took place on April 18, defense minister Moshe Dayan, chief of staff David Elazar and Mossad chief Zvi Zamir concluded that Egypt was headed for war. Although the head of Military Intelligence, Eli Zeira, thought otherwise, Israel's top decision makers accepted the majority assessment.
During the discussion Israel Galili, Golda Meir's adviser and confidant, remarked that war could be avoided, if Israel accepted the Egyptian offer that had been conveyed about a month and a half earlier to U.S. secretary of state Henry Kissinger, and whose starting point was, as Galili himself described it, that the Egyptians were "ready for peace and for a system of international agreements and guarantees et al, on condition that we withdrew fully to the earlier line."
In other words, Israel had two options: to progress with a diplomatic process that guaranteed, already at the start, a peace agreement with Egypt in exchange for the evacuation of all of Sinai, or to enter a war that the Arab side would initiate with the goal of motivating Israel to embark on such a diplomatic process.
The discussion that developed among Golda, Dayan and Galili did not deal with the question of which of the two options was preferable, but with the question that in historical perspective turned out to be almost absurd: How to prevent a situation in which, after war broke out, Golda and her friends would be accused that given the choice between war and peace, they had chosen war. This was because nobody in the Israeli leadership at the time was willing to pay the price demanded by Egyptian president Anwar Sadat in return for peace - the return of all of Sinai - since it was clear to everyone that in the next war, as the chief of staff put it, "we will land them such a blow, they will need five years to lift their heads again."
What the chief of staff and all the other participants in the meeting failed to take into account was that war, as Carl vonClausewitz wrote, is the "kingdom of uncertainty." That fall, Israel experienced the most difficult, painful and expensive war since 1948, due to the element of surprise.
Recently, we have been hearing from various directions about the possibility that Israel will be involved in a war this summer. It will be a static war, but a very costly one, since the Israeli home front will be a target of the thousands of missiles in the hands of Syria and Hezbollah. Even if Israel exacts a high price from its enemies, there is no question that it will pay with a lot of blood.
Like Golda and Dayan in April 1973, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Defense Minister Ehud Barak are facing a choice between a possibility of war and making peace. As far as we know, they are not planning, at this stage, to progress to peace, and in any case, just as in 1973, they are bringing us closer to war.
And here the analogy ends, because today's leaders are behaving far more irresponsibly. This is for two main reasons: First, in 1973, Israel's military advantage largely ensured that there would be no harm to the home front, and that the armies of Egypt and Syria would, in fact, be beaten quickly and at a relatively cheap price. Today, on the other hand, it is clear that the Arabs' ability to cause damage is far greater, and that the price of the war therefore is liable to be hundreds (if not more ) citizens killed.
Second, in 1973, Golda and her friends could not imagine giving up all of Sinai, and therefore from their point of view the Egyptian demand was unacceptable to begin with. Today, on the other hand, both Barak and Netanyahu have already agreed in principle, like the late prime minister Yitzhak Rabin, former prime minister and current President Shimon Peres and former prime minister Ehud Olmert, to give up the Golan Heights for a peace treaty. Both demonstrated cowardice when they were refrained from implementing this step, mainly for internal reasons.
Since 1967, all of Israel's wars have turned out to be more difficult and less successful than was estimated before they broke out. Most also ended with commissions of inquiry and shortened the political careers of their leaders. There is no reason to assume that the next war will be different. Do Netanyahu and Barak want to endanger their heads and ours in a war to which the alternative is so clear and promising? Possibly. It's a shame that we will pay the price.
The writer is a professor of international relations at the University of Haifa.