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The Good War | The Nation

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The Good War

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The most important story of the 1973 war is in the political realm--precisely the arena Rabinovich underplays. It was a war that did not have to happen--an argument whose elements Rabinovich presents only briefly. Nonetheless, he unobtrusively undermines Israel's claim that security needs compelled it to annex some of the territory it conquered in 1967, noting that "Israel lost this early warning buffer after the Six Day War since the Egyptian and Syrian armies were drawn up in strength only a few hundred yards from the new Israeli lines inside their territory." That is to say, the territories conquered in 1967 were a security liability, not a security asset. Likewise, the stunning victory of 1967 undermined Israel's security. It led Israelis to become arrogant and flabby and to underestimate Arab capabilities. "Israel's tank corps was a particular victim of the victory syndrome."

About the Author

Joel Beinin
Joel Beinin is the Donald J. McLachlan Professor of History and a professor of Middle East history at Stanford...

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The success of the insurgent movements throughout the region correlates well with the strength of organized labor.

Egyptians’ aspirations to democracy and social justice will depend on workers’ willingness to take to the streets.

Anwar Sadat first offered to negotiate with Israel on the basis of land-for-peace in February 1971, only months after assuming power. Rabinovich acknowledges that Israeli Prime Minister Golda Meir stubbornly refused to consider evacuation of the Sinai Peninsula in exchange for a non-belligerency agreement with Egypt. He quotes Deputy Prime Minister Yisrael Galili's correct assessment that the danger of war "stemmed from Israel's unwillingness to withdraw to the 1967 borders."

Rabinovich downplays Sadat's willingness to negotiate because Israel was unwilling to accept his terms. Among the reasons that Golda Meir and her colleagues felt no pressure to consider Egypt's overtures seriously is that President Nixon's Secretary of State and National Security Adviser, Henry Kissinger, was too busy with Vietnam and Watergate to pay attention to the Middle East. Moreover, despite UN Security Council Resolution 242's enunciation of the "inadmissibility of the acquisition of territory by war," Kissinger thought Egypt should accept Israel's terms. Kissinger's "realpolitik" meant a US policy of exerting little or no pressure on Israel to conform to the international consensus on Resolution 242.

Only after the 1973 war began did Kis-singer finally understand Sadat's goals. Nonetheless, both Nixon and Kissinger supported Israel's war objectives. Washington resupplied Israel with massive quantities of weaponry, enabling a successful counter-attack on the Egyptian front. Kissinger urged the Israelis to occupy Damascus and delayed calling for a cease-fire at the UN until the Egyptian Third Army was cut off.

Rabinovich undermines his own invocation of the existential danger facing Israel and his recapitulation of the David and Goliath story by his correct statement that Sadat wanted a short war with a limited political goal. The Egyptian president sought to kick-start negotiations to achieve an agreement with Israel based on the land-for-peace formula he had proposed in 1971. Sadat believed, correctly it turned out, that if Egypt did no more than successfully cross the Suez Canal and shatter the myth of the invincibility of the Israeli army, the United States would be compelled to intervene and mediate between the two parties. This was the opening gambit in Sadat's broader strategy of abandoning the Soviet camp and reorienting Egypt toward the United States, which he believed held "99 percent of the cards."

The initial battle plan, devised with Soviet assistance, called for Egyptian forces to cross the canal and occupy a beachhead only several miles into the Sinai. Egypt's armor and infantry would remain under the cover of Soviet-supplied SAM missiles, for which the Israeli air force had no counter. After the initial success of the crossing on a scale far greater than he had hoped for, Sadat abandoned caution and ordered his generals to push beyond the SAM umbrella. This strategic blunder allowed the Israeli air force to decimate Egypt's armor and led to its ultimate military defeat.

Although the story has circulated in Israel previously, American readers may be surprised by Rabinovich's account of King Hussein's secret visit to Golda Meir on September 25. (Blum offers essentially the same version of the event.) At a Mossad safehouse in Herzliya, Hussein warned that Syria was preparing for war and that it was likely that both Syria and Egypt would attack Israel. This is but one of the many instances of Jordanian-Israeli collaboration over a period of many decades documented by Oxford historian Avi Shlaim. Israeli military intelligence refused to believe the King despite the existence of considerable corroborating intelligence. Apparently, not all the Arabs were arrayed against Israel.

English readers may also be surprised by Rabinovich's and Blum's accounts of intelligence from 1969 on, provided to Israel by a Mossad agent known as "the In-Law." He turns out to have been Ashraf Marwan, the son-in-law of the previous Egyptian president, Gamal Abdel Nasser. However, Israeli military intelligence ignored information about the imminence of the 1973 war even from such a highly placed source until it was too late.

Invocation of the idealized images that so often substitute for analysis in discussions of Israel and the Arab-Israeli conflict, de-emphasis of the political prelude to the war and a focus on the pathos of the battle all lead Rabinovich to a flawed conclusion: Israel's victory came from "the deepest layers of the nation's being and from basic military skills that compensated for the grave errors of the leadership." American support for Israel was far more important to the outcome of the war than Rabinovich acknowledges. Not only did the Nixon Administration undertake an unprecedented airlift of military equipment in the midst of the war and provide diplomatic backing to Israel by delaying a call for a cease-fire; it even threatened to use nuclear weapons against the Soviet Union should it support Egypt in a similar fashion. In addition, Israel maintained a fundamental strategic superiority over all its Arab neighbors combined, despite their numerical superiority. These factors deserve far more prominence as explanations of the outcome of the war than Rabinovich grants.

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