The Good War

The Good War

For the last three and a half years the Israeli army has deployed American-supplied F-16 fighter jets, Apache helicopters, armored Caterpillar bulldozers and Merkava tanks powered by engines


For the last three and a half years the Israeli army has deployed American-supplied F-16 fighter jets, Apache helicopters, armored Caterpillar bulldozers and Merkava tanks powered by engines made in the USA in an unsuccessful effort to suppress the second Palestinian uprising. According to both Ehud Barak and Ariel Sharon, Israel is engaged in a war despite the spectacularly unequal military balance in the conflict. Moreover, Palestinian civilians and the infrastructure of Palestinian society have been its principal victims. Almost all of the 2,886 Palestinian fatalities since September 2000 have been civilians, about eighty of them “collateral damage” to 230 extrajudicial assassinations, which are themselves violations of the Fourth Geneva Convention. In the same period there have been 950 Israeli fatalities, 672 of them civilians.

The typical pattern for the first several weeks of the intifada was that Palestinian civilians engaged in peaceful protest marches. Toward the end of the protests, youths taunted and threw stones at Israeli troops. The soldiers fired on stone-throwers and non-stone-throwers alike, rapidly escalating their responses to all demonstrations against over thirty years of occupation in accord with previously devised plans. Palestinian police, fearing they would be discredited if they remained passive, eventually returned fire using the rifles they were issued in accordance with the Oslo agreements. Secular and Islamist Palestinian factions revitalized their military wings. As it became clear that they were hopelessly outmatched by Israel’s military force, they resorted to the strategically and morally catastrophic deployment of suicide bombers, targeting civilians.

The conduct of the Israeli army in the second intifada, in sharp contrast to its prevailing image, has been singularly unheroic. Its tactics have been condemned by Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International and even the State Department’s annual report on human rights. This less than admirable performance forms the context for a spate of new books celebrating a better era for Israel’s armed forces, when victories were gained fighting armies, not a civilian population resisting occupation and seeking national self-determination.

First there was Michael Oren’s Six Days of War: June 1967 and the Making of the Modern Middle East, chronicling the 1967 Arab-Israeli war. Though widely acclaimed by mainstream reviewers as a definitive account of the war, Oren’s book was aptly described by the tireless Norman Finkelstein as “Abba Eban with Footnotes”–a reference to Eban’s eloquent but factually challenged speech at the UN General Assembly justifying Israel’s pre-emptive strike of June 1967. While Oren’s book is a serious work of scholarship, it essentially restates the traditional Israeli account of the war as a defensive strike waged against belligerent Arab states seeking to “throw Israel into the sea.” Oren does not adequately address three arguments that challenge this view. First, according to interviews with former Defense Minister Moshe Dayan conducted in 1976 and 1977, which were kept secret for many years but published well before Oren’s book, Israel had been intentionally provoking Syria since 1948 in order to establish sovereignty over the demilitarized zones on their common border. Second, according to the evaluation of several different intelligence agencies and the Israeli general staff, Israel did not face an existential danger in 1967 and could expect an easy victory. Third, Israel chose war because, as Shimon Peres wrote in the pro- Labor Party daily, Davar, its leaders did not want to negotiate over Israel’s borders or the question of Palestinian refugees. The second of these matters remains off the table as far as Israel is concerned.

Now we have accounts of the 1973 Arab-Israeli war by two journalists, Abraham Rabinovich and Howard Blum. On October 6 Egypt and Syria dramatically launched a successful surprise attack against Israel in an effort to recover their territories occupied by Israel in 1967. In the Jewish calendar this day corresponded to Yom Kippur; in the Muslim calendar it fell during the month of Ramadan. Thus, in Israeli parlance this round of the conflict is known as the Yom Kippur War, while in the Arab world it is known as the Ramadan War. These terms reflect the increasing strength of politicized religion on both sides of the conflict since the early 1970s. In their initial thrusts, the Arab armies performed far better than Israeli military intelligence analysts thought possible. Egyptian forces crossed to the east bank of the Suez Canal and recaptured part of the Sinai Peninsula. After several days of ineptitude and disarray, Israel successfully counterattacked and occupied a large swath of territory on the west bank of the canal, cutting off the Egyptian Third Army. This inconclusive military outcome on the Egyptian front established the basis for the political negotiations that followed the war. The Syrians made impressive advances on the Golan Heights, and many Israeli leaders, including Moshe Dayan, feared that Syria would invade Israel proper. But the Syrian offensive stalled and was eventually driven back.

The archives of the Israeli, US, British and Russian governments have just been opened for this period, too late for either Rabinovich or Blum to have used them. Therefore, their books do not have as solid a documentary basis as Oren’s work. They rely heavily on inherently contradictory and self-serving interviews and memoirs. Rabinovich draws extensively on the report of the Agranat Commission, which investigated Israel’s military “lapse”–the failure to anticipate the Arab attack and to read the available intelligence properly. But important sections of that report are still classified, and the Agranat Commission avoided placing responsibility on political figures. It limited its scope of inquiry to military matters narrowly construed. As Rabinovich and Blum apparently decided in advance the stories they wanted to tell before beginning to write, lack of authoritative evidence was no deterrent to their endeavors. Consequently, their narratives are, for the most part, predictable.

Rabinovich’s The Yom Kippur War: The Epic Encounter That Transformed the Middle East is by far the more serious of the two books. As one might expect from a former reporter for the Jerusalem Post, the book is highly Israel-centered. Perhaps I betray my training as a professional historian by confessing that I am repeatedly astounded by the audacity of those who presume to write credibly about the Arab-Israeli conflict without knowing both Hebrew and Arabic. Rabinovich’s lack of Arabic means that he has no access to the Arabic press and memoirs of the war, except for items translated into Hebrew or English. They would present a rather different perspective than the Hebrew press and memoirs of Israeli military and political figures, which are among his principal sources. Lack of knowledge of Arabic also results in basic journalistic errors, like rendering the name of Egyptian Gen. Fuad Huwaydi as Havidi, following a report in the Hebrew daily Ma’ariv. (Hebrew often uses a “v” where Arabic employs a “w,” and in both Hebrew and Arabic, vowels are usually not transcribed.)

Rabinovich also has a weak grasp of Arab history. He claims that Egypt’s crossing of the Suez Canal was an unprecedented feat of Arab arms since Saladin’s reconquest of Jerusalem from the Crusaders in 1187. Saladin was a Kurd, and many of his soldiers were not Arabs. An Egyptian Mamluk army defeated the Mongols in Palestine in 1260–a legendary battle in the Egyptian national imagination. The sixteenth-century naval exploits of the Tunisian-based Khayr al-Din Barbarossa and other corsairs are legendary. The armies of the Egyptian Pasha, Mehmed Ali, conquered much of what is now Israel, Palestine, Jordan, Syria and Lebanon in the 1830s, and in 1839 reached far into the Anatolian Peninsula. So, despite Rabinovich’s criticisms of the Israeli general staff for underestimating Arab military capabilities in 1973, he himself is a victim of the same historical shortsightedness that led to this miscalculation.

The Yom Kippur War offers us numerous vignettes of Israeli soldiers of various ranks and very effectively humanizes Israel’s armed forces, especially the tank corps, which bore the brunt of the fighting. In contrast, the only substantial representation of an Arab soldier in the field is that of Egyptian Sgt. Mahmud Nadeh, using Hebrew excerpts from his diary published in the daily Yediot Aharonot. The book is profusely illustrated, but only three of the photos portray Arabs: two of Egyptian President Anwar Sadat, a “good Arab” who signed a peace treaty with Israel in 1979, and one of Abdel Ghani el-Gamasy, the Egyptian chief of operations.

All of the predictable stereotypes about the Arab-Israeli conflict are rehearsed. Despite what we now know of US and Israeli intelligence estimates predicting an easy Israeli victory in the 1967 war, the massing of Arab armies on Israel’s borders in 1967 “appeared to pose an existential threat.” Despite the overwhelming strategic superiority confirmed by the outcome of that war, the Arab-Israeli conflict remains a struggle of David and Goliath; the overall ratio of Arab to Israeli forces in 1973 was 3:1. In 1973 Israel faced the “prospect of national annihilation.” The presence of Moroccan and Iraqi units on the Golan Heights means that the 1973 war was between Israel and the entire Arab world. Rabinovich misses no opportunity to note that a soldier or his parents are Holocaust survivors.

Israeli soldiers and officers are depicted throughout as heroic, self-sacrificing, magnanimous, professional and highly motivated. In fact, the Israeli army was led by senior officers whose vision was clouded by arrogance and contempt for Arab military capacity and whose incompetence verged on criminal. Chief of Staff Dado Elazar thought that 100 Israeli tanks facing Syria’s 800 on the Golan Heights “ought to be enough.” The commander of the southern front, Gen. Shmuel Gonen, and chief of military intelligence, Meir Zeira, come off as particularly incompetent. Nonetheless, Israel won the war thanks to the qualities of its soldiers and midlevel officers.

To his credit, Rabinovich clearly explains that his purpose in writing his book is to capture the epic quality of the war and to understand it as a coherent narrative. Those objectives lead directly to the book’s most salient flaws. Portraying war as an epic tips the story in the direction of the heroic feats of the victor. And war is, as Joseph Heller’s exemplary novel Catch-22 attests, not a coherent experience. Combat is often shaped by confusion on the battlefield, failure to receive or carry out orders, unanticipated circumstances of all sorts, accidents and personality quirks. Ultimately, as happened in 1973, the strategically stronger side generally prevails. Therefore, it should be no surprise that despite the initial successes of the Arab side, Israel was the military victor and could easily have gone on to occupy Cairo and Damascus had a cease-fire not been imposed.

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.”

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.

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.”

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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