Kenneth Jacobson

The Yom Kippur War Taught Israel It Can’t Afford Complacency

The arrival of the movie biography “Golda,” addressing Israeli Prime Minister Golda Meir’s handling of the biggest external crisis in Israel’s history, the 1973 Yom Kippur War, gives us an opportunity to look at what has been learned in the 50 years since, and what may have not been learned.

In some ways the big story, as portrayed in the film and indeed in the reality of the country at that time, was the huge price paid for hubris following the unbelievable and unanticipated success of the Six Day War in 1967. The country experienced new and positive things—an enlarged geographic territory, a unified Jerusalem, the Jewish people now largely becoming pro-Zionist and supporters of Israel, a military to be reckoned with – and these led to a cultural shift among the populace toward a belief that Israel had made it and its most challenging days were behind it. So, when some tried to warn the leadership in the early 1970’s that the situation was unsustainable, the warning largely fell on deaf ears.

Consequently, when Israel was caught by surprise on Yom Kippur in 1973, it paid a huge price. That overweening sense of comfort, of a belief that Israel could handle any challenge and therefore needn’t be alert for potential dangers, was gone. And to this day, we no longer see the kinds of attitudes in the country that enabled the war to happen.

Beyond culture, Israelis learned a measure of respect for their enemies, and — while still admiring the heroism of their own soldiers — recognized that the other sides had brave and intelligent military leaders and individuals as well.

And because of the complicated relations with the U.S. government during those difficult days, Israel took away from the war not only how important the U.S.-Israel relationship had become, but also how diversifying Israel’s international support might be imperative when American and Israeli interests diverge.

What has not been inculcated from the war, and should have been, was an understanding of the need to take initiatives for peace even if they don’t actually lead to results. There are benefits to taking initiatives on several levels. For one, they give Israeli leaders more leeway and flexibility in decision-making as to whether to engage in military action. The fact that Prime Minister Meir’s government was somewhat hesitant to take the first military steps when, late in the game, they learned of Arab attacks about to happen, was partially a product of this absence of any open political initiatives which put Israel on the defensive.

Taking initiatives also serves to bring the country together in difficult moments. In this regard, the difference internally between the first Palestinian Intifada and the second is stark. During the first Intifada, an uprising which was not nearly as lethal as the second, the Israeli public was split. Many in the center and left were harshly critical of the government of then-Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir, saying in effect, what do you expect from the Palestinians when Israel offers them nothing?

During the Second Intifada, on the contrary, Israelis were united as a people behind the government because Prime Minister Ehud Barak had offered the Palestinians an opportunity to fundamentally change their situation at Camp David, but they rejected it and turned to violence. No internal blaming of Israel this time around.

In this regard, the absence of peace initiatives from different Israeli governments, even recognizing that the Palestinians have shown little or no evidence that they are truly interested in peace, has left a vacuum which is filled by right-wing fanatics or by a growing apathy toward peace with the Palestinians. One can understandably blame the Palestinians for all this, but the consequences for Israel are not good.

Once again, Israelis are getting too comfortable with the status quo, even those who believe in the necessity of a two-state solution, and Israel again could find itself surprised by whatever eruption may take place.

In sum, the effects of the Yom Kippur War on Israeli society were profound and traumatic for many. The country is still living with the consequences, and that war should continue to influence Israeli thinking on many important matters.

About the Author
Kenneth Jacobson is Deputy National Director of the Anti-Defamation League.
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