(September 20, 2018 / JNS) This week Israel will mark the 45-year anniversary of the outbreak of the Yom Kippur War. The war came as a complete surprise to the people of Israel, many of whom were at synagogue when the sirens blared. Also caught off-guard, however, were the political and military leadership and the intelligence community, who didn’t see the war at the gate and didn’t prepare the army for its advance. The cost of the failure was nearly 3,000 killed and another 7,000 wounded.
We need to revisit this defining moment in the lives of many Israelis, but we must remember and remind ourselves—and certainly, the younger generation—that the story of the Yom Kippur War didn’t end in how it began, in that moment where Israeli collective memory has seemingly been frozen in time ever since. This story has a continuation and an ending that, after all and in spite of everything, was victory.
Few of Israel’s wars have culminated in such resounding, convincing triumph—not to mention the vast strategic consequences for the country’s future.
The war’s outbreak caught the Israel Defense Forces unprepared and out of position as the enemy launched its offensive on the Sinai front in the south and on the Golan Heights in the north. The Egyptians were able to cross the Suez Canal and seize control of its eastern bank. On the Golan, meanwhile, the Syrians captured the southern heights on the way to the Jordan River crossings.
Within a matter of several days, however, the Egyptian-Syrian attack was turned back. Moreover, after recovering from the initial surprise, the IDF seized the momentum as Israeli pilots won the upper hand in every confrontation with their Egyptian and Syrian counterparts. Israeli tank crews, meanwhile, were doing the same on the ground against the enemy’s armored divisions.
In very short order, the IDF launched a counterattack that took it to the outskirts of Damascus and the west bank of the Suez Canal (“Africa,” as the troops referred to it) and a mere 100 kilometers (62 miles) from Cairo, the Egyptian capital. Additionally, the Egyptian Third Army was completely besieged by our forces, on the verge of utter collapse and surrender.
At that very point in time, on the precipice of the enemy’s complete ruination, the war ended. The enemy had been stopped in its tracks, pushed back, severely pummeled, and was staring at annihilation. Due to extenuating diplomatic considerations, however—among them, for example, the lack of awareness on the Israeli side of just how close the enemy was to its breaking point—the Israeli government ceded to U.S. pressure and agreed to a ceasefire.
Israel’s military victory was strategically significant. A direct line stretches from the Yom Kippur War to the Camp David Accords with Egypt. It’s likely that a peace deal of such magnitude would never have been attained had Egypt’s political and military echelon not felt the weight of Israel’s force and determination, or become convinced that Israel could not be defeated on the field of battle.
The quiet that has persevered on the Golan Heights for over 40 years, including even Damascus’s self-restraint every time the IDF attacks on its soil, is due to the results of the Yom Kippur War and the steep price paid by the Syrians.
For several years now, however, Israel has elected to ignore these unprecedented images of victory, and instead sink and even become addicted to sorrow and despair—the fruits of the fiasco and failures of the war’s first days. The Russians didn’t conduct themselves this way after the Second World War, which caught them off-guard and exacted a horrific price; and it’s not how the Americans choose to remember the end of their war against Japan, which began in total surprise and failure at Pearl Harbor and also exacted a heavy price.
Israel itself didn’t behave this way after the Six-Day War, despite the steep price it paid for victory, and it’s certainly not how we’ve remembered the War of Independence—the hardest and bloodiest of all Israel’s wars.
For the generation that lived through the 1973 war—and particularly those who fought in it—perhaps this choice is understandable. But there is no reason for the younger generation to be raised on an imaginary story of defeat, and there’s no reason to forget the most important lesson from that war: that determination and military might are necessary to survive in our region and to attain peace for which we all yearn.
Eyal Zisser is a lecturer in the Middle East History Department at Tel Aviv University.