For Israel, October 7 is, a day that will figure in the imagination like December 7 does for Americans. Hamas’ timing of the invasion was surely not accidental. This Simhat Torah holiday fell one day and fifty years after the surprise attack on Israel on Yom Kippur in 1973, until now the worst intelligence and policy failure in Israel’s history, and its blackest day. Over 200 soldiers died the first day of that war and over 2,000 afterward. The present stage of the conflict has already been coined as Israel’s “second Yom Kippur War.” The strategic and tactical surprise, the confusion and disarray in the first hours, and the horrific cost all echo 1973. But in many ways, this October was worse.
First, Israel already had one Yom Kippur War. For intelligence professionals and scholars the world over, it is an ultimate case study. Underestimating your opponents; the inability to penetrate their inner motivations, and thus, their rationale; overdependence on technical collection means; and more. It should not have happened then: it certainly should not have happened now. Another lesson from 1973: While many warnings are given, and many lives are saved, good intelligence is not a fail-safe. Preparation and contingency planning must be resilient enough to function without early warning.
Second, that surprise, and the war that followed, was on distant borders, in the Golan and the Sinai, with the cost paid by soldiers. In this war in 2023, the cost of surprise was paid overwhelmingly by civilian noncombatants. It was accompanied by massive long-distance rocket attacks on Israeli cities, a newer kind of threat; so is the carrying-off of dozens, as in pre-medieval times, as human booty. The first act of this war was fought in Israelis’ homes and backyards. Like the first Yom Kippur War, it took too much time, and a fearless and selfless band of brothers (and sisters), to jump in and hold the line, and pay the price, until help finally came.
In 1973, Israel absorbed the initial blow, reeled, shook itself, and came back stronger. Ineffective commanders were replaced or sidelined, units and new tactics were constituted on the fly. Then, as now, Israel’s staunchest ally, the United States, provided what was needed to recover and win. The citizen army, which is the Israel Defense Force’s empowering exoskeleton, came together, despite logistical and command disarray. As Uri Bar Yosef, a scholar of that war, noted, it was the quickest recovery in military history. That war ended with the enemy driven from Israel’s territory and the Israel Defense Force deep inside its own. The enemy’s gains in the field—though not necessarily their intangible ones—had been wiped out. That is, of course, is much more problematical this time, when the enemy is not a state, and is embedded in a civilian population.
That October started an earthquake in Israeli politics and society. The Agranat Commission of Inquiry held months of hearings. It concentrated its findings on the operational and military command level, many of whom left service in ignominy. Prime Minister Golda Meir resigned. In 1977, the public punished the ruling elite for the debacle: the Labor Party, which ruled for the state’s first twenty-nine years, was sent to opposition, and is now nearly extinct. This October surprise will also lead to a shakeup in political and military leadership and perhaps more widely in the politics of Israel. But that will only come the day after.
First published by the Foreign Policy Research Institute, October 13, 2023