OpinionU.S.-Israel Relations

50 years ago, Israel was nearly destroyed

And it happened because Israeli leaders waited for permission from Washington to go to war.

Israel Defense Forces troops firing at Syrian targets on the northern front during the 1973 Yom Kippur War. Credit: GPO.
Israel Defense Forces troops firing at Syrian targets on the northern front during the 1973 Yom Kippur War. Credit: GPO.
Daniel Greenfield
Daniel Greenfield is an Israeli-born journalist who writes for conservative publications.

50 years ago, Israel came as close as it ever has to losing a war. While the Arab Islamic nations can repeatedly lose wars without paying much of a price, Israel can only lose one major war.

That Israel survived those grim October days when the sirens sounded, the radios blared unit names and young men rushed from synagogues to cars and then tanks and planes on the holiest day in the Jewish calendar, had little to do with the nation’s government.

The leftists who had ruled the country without interruption until that war (and whose rule would falter a few years later and almost entirely disappear after its disastrous deal with the PLO) had failed badly. Golda Meir and Moshe Dayan, the subjects of enduring personality cults, had brought the country to the brink of destruction. It was not the political or military leaders who salvaged the situation, but young men fighting desperately and heroically in impossible battles.

The Yom Kippur War was not the first time that Israel was outnumbered or overwhelmed by vastly superior numbers of enemy soldiers and tanks, but it was the first time that the men in the field felt like they had been left on their own by generals and politicians and had no plan to win the war. And so they fought all the more desperately, knowing that there would be nothing else.

On the hill of Tel Saki, 60 paratroopers and 45 tanks held off 11,000 Syrian soldiers and 900 tanks. On Petroleum Road, 21-year-old Lt. Tzvika Greengold hitchhiked to a base, took command of two damaged tanks and managed to hold off hundreds of enemy tanks, destroying at least 20 of them. Heroism held the line and turned the tide, but it did little to excuse the disastrous failures that nearly ended the lives of millions and the State of Israel.

Before the Yom Kippur War, Israel had received multiple warnings that an attack was imminent. King Hussein of Jordan had personally flown in to warn Golda that war was coming.

“If we strike first we won’t get help from anybody,” Golda Meir had argued.

Had Israel struck first, it might have been able to neutralize the enemy and not only save thousands of slain soldiers, but the millions that would have been killed had Israel lost.

But Israel would not act without the approval of the Nixon administration. Golda assured Secretary of State Henry Kissinger that Israel would not strike first, and Kissinger assured the Russians that the Israelis wouldn’t strike first, and the Russians assured the Egyptians and the Syrians, who were preparing to strike first, that they had nothing to worry about.

“We’re in a political situation in which we can’t do what we did in ’67,” Defense Minister Moshe Dayan had replied to those urging him to hit the Egyptians and the Syrians first.

Despite multiple warnings, the country was not ready for war. Its disposition of forces, military doctrines and general readiness were badly out of date. The country’s political and military leaders had forgotten that they had only won through daring attacks and had come to rely on defensive positions like the Purple Line defenses in the Golan Heights or the disastrous Bar Lev Line on the Egyptian border, that were structurally and conceptually flawed, and failed badly.

Israel’s old military leaders had come to rely too much on the old heroics of tanks, planes and paratroopers that had performed brilliantly in the Six-Day War and had never gotten comfortable with missiles, anti-tank and anti-aircraft weapons. The Egyptians had badly fumbled the use of such Soviet weapons in ‘67, and the veterans of that war failed to respect their potential. The devastating impact of Soviet anti-aircraft fire and anti-tank missiles was an expensive education.

But the deepest failure was that Meir allowed Kissinger to cripple any possible Israeli response. The architect of a disastrous foreign policy that is responsible for many of America’s problems today had wanted Israel to lose a war.

Kissinger had told Egypt’s national security adviser in the spring of the year that, “if you want us to intervene with Israel, you’ll have to create a crisis. We only deal in crisis management. You’ll have to ‘spill some blood.’”

As Kissinger later told Ford, “We didn’t expect the October War.” “But wasn’t it helpful?” Ford suggested. “We couldn’t have done better if we had set the scenario,” Kissinger replied.

The State Department got what it wanted. Israel suffered severe military and morale losses, and was then prevented from benefiting from the fruits of victory when it turned the tables. Israel was cut down to size and went on the road to becoming a client state. Egypt was lured away from the Soviet camp in the first of a series of peace deals to “stabilize the region.”

What looked good on paper was actually a disaster for both America and Israel. The United States was saddled with propping up and coddling Egypt’s military dictatorship, which could at any moment fall to the Muslim Brotherhood. (This temporarily happened when Obama promoted his Arab Spring, leading to a scenario where Islamic terrorists gained possession of high-end U.S. military equipment and a top-ranked regional military. It will likely happen again.) Much the same scenario will play out even sooner and on a smaller scale in Jordan. A “peace” deal turning over the Golan to Syria fortunately failed. The PLO deal, however, created the worst existential threat to the Jewish state, by embedding an expanding terrorist state inside its territory.

These deals were based on the idea that Israeli power must be checked to stabilize the region. Israeli power, rather than being seen as a source of strength for Israel and America, was stigmatized as a destabilizing force. Stability required Israeli territorial concessions, no unilateral operations and an end to everything that had made Israel a force to be reckoned with.

Israeli governments accepted the idea that the bold strategic moves that seized the initiative had to be replaced by a balance of terror that slowly escalates conflicts rather than stopping them (and which assigns blame to Israel, rather than the growing capabilities of the terrorists and their allies, for the escalation).

What has been happening in the last 50 years is a kind of slow-motion military and diplomatic Yom Kippur War, in which Israel gradually retreats from territories, relying on defensive positions that can’t hold up and diplomatic agreements that are worthless in the long run.

Even the Abraham Accords, widely hailed and hyped, that brought together Israel and some of America’s smaller Arab oil allies to oppose Iran’s growing power, were once again based on Israel abandoning domestic moves and initiatives to solidly lay claim to parts of the Jewish State.

Kissinger used to sneer that “Israel has no foreign policy, only a domestic policy.” Now Israel has no domestic policy, only a foreign policy. It has sacrificed its interests to a failed regional and nation-building strategy hatched in Washington, D.C., and premised on completely misguided assumptions about the Middle East, and how societies in this region work.

Fifty years after the Yom Kippur War, the generals and soldiers who had come out of the “kibbutz” outposts have resentfully been making way for new soldiers who come from the outposts of the “settlements.” Where the kibbutz was primarily a socialist experiment, the settlement is primarily a religious Zionist one. Its families raise nine children, not in communal creches, but in homes and around Shabbat tables.

Labor’s twin failures in the Yom Kippur War and the Oslo Accords destroyed its credibility. The majority of Israelis that it had been keeping down, Mizrahi refugees from the Muslim world, religious Jews, Holocaust survivors, Russian immigrants and settlers, helped put the conservative Zionist Likud in power and make Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu the country’s longest-serving leader, beating out David Ben-Gurion. The current violent leftist protests against the government’s judicial reform initiative are primarily an attack on a new Israeli majority that is not beholden to the failed leftist experiments of the past.

Despite all this, Israel’s military leadership draws on the same incestuous elite, which has yet to be tested in any major military conflict. If the Yom Kippur War were to play out again, there is little doubt that most of Israel’s new generation of soldiers would respond just as heroically, as they have through the smaller-scale conflicts against Islamic terrorists, but the generals remain a question mark. Unlike the old generals who took the initiative, Israel’s current generals, like America’s generals, are focused on averting wars and avoiding any escalation of existing conflicts.

American generals obsessed with avoiding conflict are covering for a state of military unreadiness. Israeli generals fearful of any conflict may be doing the same thing.

The Yom Kippur War showed that the “safer bet” of relying on defenses like the Iron Dome isn’t really safe at all. When your enemies outnumber you and their ruthlessness is endless, playing defense is not a survival option. Israel thrived when it attacked brilliantly and unexpectedly. Under the “technological genius” of defenses like the Iron Dome, Israelis in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv are back to huddling in bomb shelters the way that they did during the old wars.

Ever since Israel was nearly destroyed in the Yom Kippur War because Golda and Dayan had put all their trust in Kissinger, proposals to take out Iran’s nuclear program have repeatedly come up against the objections of Washington, D.C. Similarly, any effort to seriously deal with Hamas fizzles out in the same way. Fifty years later, Israel still can’t allow itself to strike first.

And yet, just as in the Yom Kippur War, the hour may come when Israeli leaders have to decide whether to strike first without getting permission from D.C. or face the destruction of their nation.

The opinions and facts presented in this article are those of the author, and neither JNS nor its partners assume any responsibility for them.
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