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The October War’s lingering trauma

Yossi Mekelberg

Published: Updated:

No war left the Israeli society more traumatized and in search of leadership and guidance than the October War, which began on the Jewish Day of Atonement, Yom Kippur. Forty years ago to the date, a well-coordinated Egyptian and Syrian military attack caught Israel by complete surprise, and shook Israel’s society and political system to the core. The Day of Atonement of 1973 was different from any one before or after it. It is usually the most sombre of days in the Jewish calendar during which many Jews around the world fast and pray, and beg for forgiveness. In Israel there is an eerie atmosphere, normal life stops for a day, as cars are not driven and thousands and thousands of people flock to synagogues, many wearing their prayer shawls. October 6, 1973 was very different.

Many military vehicles were in the streets and people left synagogues in the middle of prayers in order to join their military units. Even the state owned media broke their customary silence on this day for the first time in Israel’s history. When night fell, it occurred to everyone that the Arab-Israeli conflict had flared up once again. One of the most deadly wars in the history of the region had broken out. Israel was caught by complete surprise, the lead up to this became known is as the fiasco (Hamechdal in Hebrew). The war shattered the perceptions of the Israeli decision making elite regarding their neighbors’ intentions and capabilities, and led to question of how to best guarantee the long term security of the country. Israeli society lost its confidence in her leadership, and this loss would eventually end the dominance of the Labor party in Israeli politics.

Some still fail to learn the lesson of these dark days back in October 1973.

Yossi Mekelberg

Israel’s failure to detect the war plans in Cairo and Damascus was due to a combination of intelligence breakdown and political misperception. The roots of the Israeli psyche which led to the October 1973 surprise can be traced to a large extent to their victory in the 1967 Six Day War. Back then the Israeli army managed to win a war on three fronts, and within six days the territory of the country was quadrupled. Erroneously it gave Israeli society a sense of invincibility, which resulted in complacency and perhaps even arrogance. By the end of the war Israel found itself with strategic depth stretching from Sharam el-Sheikh in the south to the Hermon Mountain in the North. Moreover, with the occupation of the West Bank, it was also the beginning of messianic Zionism among some quarters of religious national movement. They were in an ecstatic state of mind derived from controlling of some of the holiest places to Judaism, including the Wailing Wall and the Cave of Patriarch. For this segment of the population, this was the ultimate proof of divine intervention in the war. The military success of 1967 led on one hand to a sense of security and self-confidence, but at the same time a complete lack of understanding as to the effect it would have on the defeated countries, as well as Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza who came under Israeli occupation. In the prevailing euphoria very few in Israeli society fully realized that what they misperceived as ‘liberation’ was the beginning of a prolonged occupation, which would bring more conflict and would in the end alter the nature of Israeli society.

Accepting Israel

In the six year period between the two wars, the menace of the Arab-Israeli conflict became something less threatening for Israelis. The fronts, all off a sudden, were far from population centers, the Arab world was still recovering from the shock of 1967, and Israelis deluded themselves that the status quo was unchallengeable. Even the war of attrition which was raging between the Israel and Egypt along the Suez Canal, could not spoil the party for many Israelis. Of those involved in the internal discourse very few recognized the need to be magnanimous in victory, and that the occupation was unsustainable if Israel would like to live in peace with her neighbors. It also required a change in the mind-set of the Arab world to accept Israel in its midst; some of the rhetoric coming from Arab capitals did not help to alter Israeli’s perception of isolation and rejection in the Middle East.

Israel’s lack of trust in her neighboring countries was epitomized by the unfortunate saying of the powerful Defense Minister Moshe Dayan “Better Sharm el-Sheikh without peace than peace without Sharm el-Sheikh.” This best explains why the advances by Egyptian President Anwar Sadat in 1971 to negotiate full peace with Israel, in return for the complete withdrawal from the Sinai Peninsula, were met with suspicion and were rejected by Israel. Inevitably this deadlock was bound lead to another cycle of violence. The October War was the response to this status quo which was unacceptable to the Arab world.

If Israel thought strategically in terms of defending herself from an absolute war aimed at her destruction, President Sadat planed with his Syrian allies a much more limited war in order to shake Israeli complacency and intransigence. Despite having a spy, Ashraf Marwan, at the very top of the political echelon in Egyptian politics, the war came as a surprise to Israel, leaving little time to mobilize reserves which the Israeli army relies on heavily.

The regular army was unable to stop the advancing Egyptian and Syrian armies, and in the crucial 72 hours needed to deploy the reserve forces, a grim leadership feared defeat and allegedly contemplated the dooms day nuclear option. However, the Israeli army regrouped and by the end of a very costly war, Israeli forces crossed the Suez Canal encircling the Egyptian Third Army on the Sinai front and pushing back the Syrian army as far as 43 kilometers from Damascus. Much of this was achieved due to U.S. support who came to Israel’s rescue through an airlift of weapons and ammunition. This helped the Israeli army to regroup and tilt the military balance of power in its favor.

Government and military failures

When an American brokered truce came into effect three weeks after the war started, Israel was left to lick its wounds, despite the fact that military it ended undefeated. However, it exposed the failure of the government and the military establishment, who blamed each other for the lapse of preparation. Prime Minister Golda Meir was exposed as out of touch, and following a judicial inquest left government together with her Defense Minister Dayan. The euphoria of 1967 turned into deep malaise in Israeli society, characterized by protest movements and political realignments.

The Labor party, the dominant party long before Israeli independence, clung to power for few more years. Nonetheless, the October War eventually propelled the right wing Likud party, led by the likes of Menachem Begin and Ariel Sharon, to power. The irony in this shift of power in Israeli politics was that it was eventually the Likud party which accepted the formula of peace in exchange for withdrawal from territories. In the Camp David Accords of 1978 Israel agreed to withdraw from the Sinai Peninsula for peace with Egypt. On the lawns of the White House, where the Camp David Accords were signed, stood the Israeli Foreign Minister which was none other than Moshe Dayan, who defected from the Labor party. It took a painful war for him and others to accept that peace was preferable to territorial acquisitions. As happens in history, this kind of realization takes the loss of thousands of lives before politicians understand the value of compromise for peace. Some still fail to learn the lesson of these dark days back in October 1973.

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Yossi Mekelberg is an Associate Fellow at the Middle East and North Africa Program at the Royal Institute of International Affairs, Chatham House, where he is involved with projects and advisory work on conflict resolution, including Track II negotiations. He is also the Director of the International Relations and Social Sciences Program at Regent’s University in London, where he has taught since 1996. Previously, he was teaching at King’s College London and Tel Aviv University. Mekelberg’s fields of interest are international relations theory, international politics of the Middle East, human rights, and international relations and revolutions. He is a member of the London Committee of Human Rights Watch, serving on the Advocacy and Outreach committee. Mekelberg is a regular contributor to the international media on a wide range of international issues and you can find him on Twitter @YMekelberg.

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