The Good War | The Nation


The Good War

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If Abraham Rabinovich offers us an account of the 1973 war in which romantic stereotypes woven through reasonable political and military reportage ultimately lead to an unrealistic conclusion, Howard Blum's The Eve of Destruction: The Untold Story of the Yom Kippur War is high kitsch that owes more to the Leon Uris school of Israeli history than to any recognized form of scholarship. In Blum's historical mythology, contemporary Israel is not the result of a largely secular Zionist rebellion against religious orthodoxy but, "after two thousand years of struggle, [the fulfillment of] a once improbable biblical prophecy."

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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.

Blum's saga is bookended by accounts of an attempted suicide bombing during the second intifada, which is, of course, "fierce and primitive." F-16 attacks on residential dwellings, which go unmentioned, are no doubt "gentle and civilized." The bombing is prevented by Shabtai Brill, an intelligence officer who was discredited and victimized because he went outside the chain of command in an effort to warn his superiors of the impending war.

A parallel and even more schmaltzy frame for Blum's fantasy war is the love story of Nati and Yossi Ben Hanan. Yossi was a tank commander who became internationally famous as "the chosen image of a chosen people," as Blum so modestly puts it, after he graced the cover of Life following the 1967 war. Nati and Yossi are "our new Davids, our new Sarahs." The description of their honeymoon voyage on a third-class train in India is a predictable Orientalist travelogue. Among the saris, eunuchs, beggars, conjurers, puppeteers and a cobra charmer, "there was always noise, a grueling cacophony of people and animals, of hectoring voices and low pitched sobbing. And the smells, a high noxious mix of urine, spices, heat, curry, and unwashed bodies, the odor thick and pervasive, pressing constantly."

Yossi and Nati abandon their honeymoon so that he can join his tank unit fighting on the Golan Heights. At that point, although she was a lieutenant before her marriage, Nati fades into the background. This may be just as well, because many women and not a few men might feel uncomfortable with the hyper-macho sexual banter among the tank officers on the Golan Heights.

Blum is so immersed in kitsch that he misses elementary aspects of the 1973 war. The Israeli army was not "brilliantly led," as he asserts. Rather, as Rabinovich makes clear, the arrogance born of easy victory in 1967 led the Israeli high command to underestimate its opponents and ignore intelligence contradicting its preconceived understanding of the strategic situation. The Bush Administration's misadventures in Iraq reconfirm how grave the consequences of such arrogance can be.

Reluctance to report weaknesses of the Israeli army also leads Blum to offer a mistaken account of Israel's October 9 "successful bombing of the Syrian Defense Ministry." According to Rabinovich, "the damage to the buildings in Damascus had been moderate" and "the Syrian military hierarchy was in underground war rooms elsewhere." Moreover, it was not the Defense Ministry but the general staff headquarters that was bombed. The main effect of the air raid, according to Rabinovich, was deterrent: It ended the Frog missile attacks on Israel.

Blum's misrepresentations extend to confusion about the location of Israel's borders. When the Egyptian army enters the Sinai Peninsula, sovereign territory of Egypt occupied by Israel, it is "on Israeli soil." Similarly, when the Syrian army retakes part of the Golan Heights, its internationally recognized territory, it has "entered Israel." There is also constant confusion about whether the Arab forces are fighting "Israelis" or "Jews." To be sure, the Arabs themselves are often imprecise on this matter, but the current promiscuous accusations of a worldwide rise in anti-Semitism suggest the need to be clear about this.

Blum's failure is therefore obvious and glaring. He is either lost in a dream or fundamentally ignorant about the past and pres-ent state of the Arab-Israeli conflict. Such illusory conceptions of the conflict continue to inform US public policy and the understanding of many Americans, especially Jews who, rather bizarrely in light of current events, feel Israel is their security blanket and evangelical Protestants (apparently including President Bush and others in his Administration) who see it as the harbinger of the Second Coming. Rabinovich is more realistic than Blum, but perhaps therefore more seductive. Even though Rabinovich ultimately succumbs to the same romanticization as Blum, albeit on a less extravagant scale, his version of the 1973 war may well receive the kind of canonical status that Michael Oren's account of the 1967 war is on the way to achieving.

A better way to think about the 1973 war might begin with the proposition stated earlier, that it was a war that did not have to happen. As is the case with other important revisions to the history of the Arab-Israeli conflict, an Israeli historian, Yoram Meital, has laid the groundwork for this argument in his dense but well-researched Egypt's Struggle for Peace: Continuity and Change, 1967-1977. Unlike Rabinovich and Blum, Meital knows Arabic, and Egypt, well. This does not make Meital a knee-jerk, left-wing wimp. In fact, he served as a mentor to the far-from-dovish former defense minister Yitzhak Mordechai, who ran unsuccessfully for the Israeli prime ministership in 1999. But Meital respects Egypt, its people and its culture. This is not only an essential starting point for understanding the 1973 war. It is also an essential starting point for a real Arab-Israeli peace process.

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