The coronavirus crisis, the worst crisis to hit Israel since 1973, is bringing up memories, especially during this period of the Jewish High Holy Days, of the Yom Kippur War and the trauma of that time. Over the last days, wherever we turn – the weekend papers, the radio, the TV news, countless websites – we’ve been hearing about the debacle from back then and the debacle of today, about Bibi and Golda, about the warnings that were dismissed then and the warnings of today, and about the arrogance that is leading Israel today, as in 1973, to disaster.
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Such comparisons are utter nonsense. Had Israel’s leaders behaved in 1973 as its leaders are behaving now, and had the IDF operated in 1973 as the contact tracing system is operating now, the Syrians wouldn’t have been stopped at the fences in the Golan Heights, they would have come all the way to Haifa. And the Egyptians would not have been stopped eight kilometers from the Suez Canal, they would have stormed into Tel Aviv.
To do justice by Israel’s leaders and fighters from 1973, there are a few things we ought to remember: The 1973 debacle was largely due to a specific intelligence failure. As was revealed by the Agranat Commission, as well as by just-released documents, Eli Zeira, the head of military intelligence, lied to the decision-makers and concealed from them that he had given an order not to activate the special intelligence-gathering mechanisms from which, they knew, the warning about impending war and other warnings should have been received.
What would the equivalent be today? If Professor Gamzu were to provide the decision-makers with false information concerning matters of the utmost urgency to reassure them, because he was confident the pandemic was under control. Obviously no such thing is happening now, but the information given to Prime Minister Golda Meir, Defense Minister Moshe Dayan and IDF Chief of Staff David (“Dado”) Elazar was deliberately distorted and indicated that the danger wasn’t that serious. Even on that Friday morning, the day before the war began, when Dayan asked Zeira if there were any warnings coming through the intelligence channels, Zeira said no, even though he knew there was no information because these channels were closed. Dayan and the others were relieved.
Despite what we’ve come to accept based on all the fairy tales about 1973, the country’s leadership was not complacent. It prepared for war – on the basis of the information at its disposal. From the protocols of the discussions it’s clear that Golda viewed the situation very seriously despite the military intelligence chief’s downplaying of the threat. Dado, who had already put the regular army on the highest level of alert Friday morning, considered drafting reservists as well, even when the military intelligence chief described the likelihood of war as “lower than low.”
It’s also important to recall how the leadership, Golda and Dado in particular, performed once the war began. Golda, who was far more hardened than any leader we have today – by the pogroms she endured in her childhood, by the privations and backbreaking work of her days as a pioneer and by the grueling years of the War of Independence – was no “old lady in the kitchen.” She was a steady rock who was able to ask the tough questions and make the right decisions. From the second day of the war, she understood that she couldn’t pin her hopes on Dayan and so she relied primarily on Dado.
Dado was the greatest commander in Israel’s history, and his performance was extraordinary: his demand to draft the reserves once he received the warning about the war; his decision to move the 146th Armored Division up north, which saved the Golan Heights; his realization after October 8 that the Syrians must first be taken out of the war before focusing on the Egyptians; his tactical thinking that Israel should lay in wait for the Egyptian offensive and defeat the Egyptian army before crossing the Suez Canal, which probably averted an earlier crossing and spared many lives.
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And most important of all was Dado’s spirit. Reading the transcripts of the discussions that were held in the IDF underground command center, one can’t help but be impressed by his calm and wisdom, by the productive atmosphere he fostered even at the darkest hours and by his steadfast spirit that never wavered, not even when Dayan talked about the possible destruction of the Third Temple, i.e., the modern State of Israel. He didn’t look for support or try to curry sympathy, he just aimed to do the right thing. To the generals who agreed with his assessments, he said: “Don’t tell me why I’m right. Tell me why I’m wrong.” Can you imagine any one of our present leaders ever saying such a thing?
And there was the IDF of 1973, the best army Israel has ever put on the battlefield. A fighting army with experienced commanders, an army that had done extensive training for the next war and so was ready for it. Yes, we had great confidence in the army, but that confidence was well-placed. No other army in modern history ever recovered from a surprise offensive, went on the counter-offensive and won a war as quickly as the IDF did in 1973. If we had a contact tracing system today that worked as well as the IDF did then, we could all be relaxing outside now and sipping a beer – as Netanyahu assured us we should do.
Historical comparisons are fine as long as they are based on familiarity with history and not on old wives’ tales. It wouldn’t hurt to show a little respect for the people whom much of the nation holds responsible for the debacle of 1973. Likening them to Israel’s current leaders, and to Netanyahu especially, does them a great disservice and gives Netanyahu unwarranted credit.
The writer is a professor emeritus in Haifa University’s Department of International Relations.