50 years ago this month was the Yom Kippur War. It was one of the darkest times in the modern state of Israel. As the Bar-Lev Line on the Suez Canal was being dismantled by the Egyptian Army like children playing with Legos, Moshe Dayan said with tears in his eyes “The Third Temple is in danger”. He was referring to the State of Israel.
Some have mocked Dayan’s comments and claim he said it in a state where he had not slept in days. But in Eighteen Days in October: The Yom Kippur War and How It Created the Modern Middle East (St. Martin’s Press), author Uri Kaufman makes it eminently clear that Dayan’s fears were not unfounded, and the Temple was precariously close to falling.
In the half-century since the war, countless books and papers have been written. What Kaufman shows here, in this superb and meticulously researched book, is that the Yom Kippur War was ultimately a watershed event. What the Yom Kippur War showed, was that Israel was a force to be dealt with and is here to stay.
All of the parties in the war had their concept. In Israel, the Hebrew term conceptzia referred to the all-encompassing preconceptions and assumptions about Egypt, Syria, and Jordan. Parts of the conceptzia was the axiomatic assessment that Egypt would not start a war. And a key error Israel made is that they the conceptzia conflated capabilities and intentions. Israel thought they knew the Egyptians and Syrians better than they did, with devastating consequences.
The conceptzia was like a black hole that sucked out all reason. IDF Major General Eli Zeira imprisoned himself in the intellectual trap of the Concept. Kaufman writes that he skillfully repaired it each time some new piece of evidence offered him a chance to escape. He ignored the obvious and insisted evidence to the contrary was erroneous.
It’s easy to blame the Israeli government and military establishment for their all-encompassing embrace of the concept. Yet all of us, the older we get, have our own concepts that we clinch to. Often to our own detriment.
In the six years between 1967 and 1973, while the conceptzia was being developed, Israel went on a military buying spree. While the history of Israel is filled with countless ironic and miraculous moments, Kaufman writes that President Lyndon Johnson, a Texas oilman with deep interests and loyalties to Middle East oil interests, did more to guarantee the security and survival of Israel than any American president until then.
President Johnson and Prime Minister Levi Eshkol negotiated a deal for Patton tanks based in Germany. Johnson also approved the sale of the McDonnell Douglas F-4 Phantom, which was the most advanced fighter-bomber at the time.
The sale of the Phantom represented a significant shift in U.S. policy from maintaining a stance of neutrality to one of providing and maintaining Israel with the arms it needed to ensure a qualitative advantage over its Arab enemies.
Parenthetically, Kaufman writes that one of the main beneficiaries of the Six-Day War was the people of Gaza. Egypt never allowed Gazans to work in Egypt, nor did they give them many rights, and they in fact created the open air prison known as Gaza. If was only after 1967 that many Gazans found employment in Israel, at salaries much higher than they could ever make in Gaza. Once again, Israel is a land of irony.
The Yom Kippur War had no shortage of heroes and villains. While she had to resign in disgrace, Kaufman writes of Golda Meir in the highest of praise. Former Israeli Minister of Tourism and Minister of Internal Affairs Uzi Baram said of Golda that in terms of raw courage, she stood first among equals. And Kaufman refers to her as “a lioness in orthopedic shoes”.
She is the only prime minister in Israeli history with no military experience either in government or in uniform. And what’s surprising, is that during a war, where effective communication is critical, Kaufman writes that her command of Hebrew was in fact far from perfect. And when she had to shoot down an idea Moshe Dayan suggested, she told him to “forget about it”.
Of Golda, much of the blame, but ultimate victory of the war goes to her. She at times defied the United States and Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, steamrolled the Egyptians, stared down the Soviets, and ultimately dictated the outcome of the war.
Much of the victory of 1967 was due to everything going perfectly. In 1973, Israel also was the beneficiary of countless acts of providence that tipped the war in their favor. From Syrian tanks that inexplicably stopped, when they could have had an open path into the Golan Heights, the Egyptian Army’s inexplicable withdrawal from the Chinese Farm, Anwar Sadat ignoring the advice of his chief of staff Saad el-Shazly, to fighter pilots from the Moroccan Air Force that that was planned to assist; but were instead sitting in jail as a result of a failed coup against King Hassan II, and more. The Yom Kippur War was one long set of fortuitous events in Israel’s favor.
This is a fascinating, engaging book, and meticulously researched book. The drama and at times desperation of the war is evident in every chapter. Kaufman writes so enchantingly well, that when he describes the darkest times of the battles, you can feel the darkness and desperation as Israeli troops were mowed down by the dozens, with little hope for rescue, or victory.
If there’s anything critical to write about the book, it’s that I wish Kaufman would have written much more. He covers all of the key events and figures, but so much more can be written. For those who want to understand the Yom Kippur War, how it happened, how it perhaps could have been avoided, and how it was ultimately won, Eighteen Days in October is an essential read. In the corpus of military history, this book like, Golda, is first among equals.