This week marked the 48th anniversary of the Yom Kippur War. In many ways, this was the most frightening conflict in Israel’s history. The country was caught by surprise and the first week of the war saw many Israeli casualties and concern that the country was running out of armaments as it had to deal simultaneously with attacks from Egypt in the south and Syria from the north.
While the Sinai remained a buffer for Israel in the south, the Syrian gains in the Golan Heights threatened Israel’s north in a way that had not happened since the founding of the state.
There were many political prices to be paid in Israel for the nation’s unpreparedness. At the same time, never before or since has the close relationship with the Americans had such an impact as during this conflict.
Ironically, this dangerous war for Israel served as a catalyst for the historic breakthrough with Egypt four years later. The combination of Egypt being able to see itself as regaining some degree of honor in its initial crossing of the Suez Canal, and being forced to turn to the United States to save its Third army, reinforced the notion in the mind of President Anwar Sadat that Israel was here to stay. Continuing war had no purpose other than the suffering of the Egyptian people.
As we look back 48 years, what are the lessons for today of that historic conflict?
First, the need for Israel, while maintaining a strong military, to seek an end to the delegitimization of the Jewish state in the region was paramount. The war demonstrated that the status quo was an untenable situation that inevitably exploded. The breakthrough with Egypt, followed two decades later by the peace treaty with Jordan and the more recent normalization agreements with the UAE, Bahrain, Sudan and Morocco, are essential for Israel’s security. The strategic situation in the region already had changed dramatically with the 1979 peace treaty with Egypt.
The question arises whether the same point about the untenability of the status quo applies to the current situation with the Palestinians.
It can be argued that the current stalemate differs, most significantly in that the challenge of a hostile Egypt was many times more serious to Israel’s security than anything the Palestinians can bring to bear. At the same time, complacency about the threat was as rampant then as it is now. And the Palestinians, while nowhere near the security threat to Israel that Egypt was, are much more intimate with Israelis, and the status quo masks challenges surrounding security, demography, human rights and Israel’s image in the world.
Second, widening the circle of peace enables a true alliance of the moderates in the Middle East to stand up to the continuing very real radical threat in the region, led by Iran and its many surrogates, particularly Hezbollah and Hamas. Unlike in 1973, when Israel was largely isolated in the region, today many of its Arab partners refrain from hostilities toward Israel even during a highly charged war as recently took place in Gaza.
Third is the question of Israel being able to defend itself. As noted, Israel had to turn to the US for emergency rearming during the conflict. It is said over and over and appropriately that Israel will never ask the US to risk any of its soldiers to defend the Jewish state. At the same time, Israel continues to need American military assistance, as the recent squabble over funding for the Iron Dome highlighted. The Yom Kippur War truly was the beginning of Israel’s dependence on US military assistance.
Will this remain a reality going forward? Can Israel ever truly achieve military self-sufficiency? Was the recent brouhaha over Iron Dome, in many ways the easiest procurement to argue for, a harbinger of more difficult battles to come over military aid to Israel?
The outbreak of the war on Yom Kippur in 1973 was probably the most traumatic moment in Israel’s history. Its aftermath was both negative and positive. As the challenges facing Israel have changed over the years, the relevance of that conflict to the demands of today is both intact and outdated. Distinguishing between what remains relevant and what is not is the task going forward for Israeli leaders.